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Nation-Building

U.S. Civil Affairs troops are working in post-war Afghanistan right now. They'll soon see action in Iraq.

11:00 PM, Feb 5, 2003 • By CHRISTIAN LOWE
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THEY WAGE THEIR BATTLES wearing camouflage uniforms or the native shawal kameez and pakul hat, M-4 assault rifles slung over their shoulders, 9mm pistols strapped to their thighs. Some are qualified to jump out of aircraft and infiltrate villages deep in enemy territory. Others are trained to call in air strikes if attacked, or fight pitched battles with native forces until help can arrive. And they've become the go-to force in America's war on terrorism in the rugged hills and fractious villages of Afghanistan.

Who are these troops? Army Green Berets? Navy SEALS? Delta Force operators? Not exactly. Though some units have much of the same training as America's most elite covert forces, the soldiers of the Army's Civil Affairs units are waging the war on terror in a unique way and could forecast a strategic shift in how America will wage the war on terror as it moves to new countries.

The Pentagon recently unveiled a new plan to set up what it calls Joint Regional Teams in towns across Afghanistan. These will be manned by 60 government and military officials, including special operations soldiers, Civil Affairs troops, State Department officers, and representatives from other coalition partners. Though these teams will be armed with assault rifles, their most potent weapon will be their calculators, tape measures, and laptop computers. They will act as middle men--and women--to help get contractors in and construction projects done for local villages.

Soldiers from the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, of Knoxville, Tenn., inspect the progress on a new school in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2002. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Derrick C. Goode, U.S. Air Force.Soldiers from the 489th Civil Affairs Battalion, of Knoxville, Tenn., inspect the progress on a new school in the Parwan Province of Afghanistan on Sept. 8, 2002. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Derrick C. Goode, U.S. Air Force.

Afghanistan has been rocked by invasion and civil war for 23 years. Roads are a shambles, bridges have been blown to rubble, wells have been poisoned or run dry. These Civil Affairs warriors have been tasked with making sure local Afghans have something to turn to besides the hollow promises of radical fanatics like the Taliban or al Qaeda. Once villages have water to irrigate their crops, roads to transport goods, and schools to educate their children, the Pentagon argues, the fruits of discontent, built over years of division in Afghanistan, will wither on the vine.

In a Dec. 19 briefing, Dr. Joe Collins, the Pentagon's Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, reported that over 200 Civil Affairs troops were on the ground in Afghanistan. Since the war began, 127 schools, 400 wells, and 26 medical clinics have been built. Over $900 million has been spent on such projects and more is on the way.

But for Civil Affairs soldiers the mission is more than just good works. Their presence in the first Joint Regional Team center in Gardez, 60 miles south of Kabul, also acts as a security outpost. Not an outpost bristling with fighter planes and armored vehicles, but one equipped with intelligent, well-trained soldiers and federal officers who can keep their ears to the ground and let commanders know when trouble might be brewing--or better yet, diffuse potential threats before they can escalate. Further, these troopers are in the perfect position to gain valuable intelligence on the whereabouts of terrorist leaders.

And don't be surprised when these Civil Affairs troopers begin to crop up soon after war breaks out in Iraq. Just as they are in Afghanistan, these good-works warriors will be setting up shop across the country to rebuild a shattered land and help defeat terrorism, one village at a time.

Christian Lowe is a staff writer for Army Times Publishing and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.