News>Servicemembers assist Afghans with economic development
Capt. Patrick Kolesiak talks with local villagers about energy issues in Afghanistan March 4 in Panjshir, Afghanistan. Captain Kolesiak is the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team lead civil engineer. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
U.S. military and civilian agency members of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team conduct a meeting with the deputy governor Abdul Kabiri to discuss issues pertaining to the province March 3 in Panjshir, Afghanistan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
by Staff Sgt. Zachary Wilson
Air Forces Central combat camera news team
4/7/2009 - PANJSHIR, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- For more than eight years, the government of Afghanistan has been building from the ground up, using millions of dollars in aid from foreign governments and private organizations. These funds impact both the central government in Kabul and the country's 34 provinces.
Due to the unique relationships between American servicemembers of the Panjshir Provincial Reconstruction Team have with the people of the Panjshir province and the region's local government, progress is not measured merely in dollar signs and projects completed but by how well the Panjshir people can care for themselves.
The PRT's commander breaks his organization's mission into three different areas to accomplish this, each reliant upon the other. They are development of roads allowing access to some of the more isolated villages in the province, ensuring the work within the Panjshir Valley is a "home-grown effort," and creating conditions that make investment in the area sustainable.
"The people here want and need development," Lt. Col. Mark Stratton said. "We really work with the local provincial government to help build these opportunities that will lead to private re-investment. One way we're doing this is by paving the road to Badakshan and planning for the 'rib roads,' which will connect the people to the rich natural resource supply (that exists in the province)."
In addition to developing plans to connect some of the more isolated areas within Panjshir with the rib roads, the team also is working to increase production and efficiency in what the Panjshir people know and do best: agriculture.
As the majority of the province is dependent on agriculture, with some 95 percent of economy dedicated, the PRT works significantly within that area with the Panjshir government as well as in-house representatives from U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers.
Luckily for the group, Panjshir is recognized as a model province, "with effective and legitimate governance capable of providing essential services to the people," Colonel Stratton said.
As a result of the area's significant security, the government and the PRT members are free to work unhindered from threats that impact reconstruction work within other provinces.
"We work within the local government to teach self-sufficiency, as we are not going to be here forever," said Army Lt. Col. Steve Lancaster, chief of the Panjshir PRT's Civil Affairs section.
One part of that effort is the team's work with a local nonprofit organization, the Massoud foundation, to donate $25,000 in microloans to the people of the Panjshir valley at $500 per family with zero interest.
"This will allow a person to buy a cow, start a business, whatever they want to do to take care of their families," Colonel Lancaster said.
The program is managed with the Panjshir Valley's Massoud group, which has an office in every province in Afghanistan and is named after one of the nation's most celebrated heroes, who coincidentally is from the Panjshir region.
"This is all about putting money in the hands of the people," said Sadiqi, the Panjshir Valley Massoud foundation director. "It's really a small investment that people can use to start their own businesses. There is no set payment plan, but after six months they should be able to bring back the $500. We don't charge them interest, and we'll loan the money back out to the next applicant."
Other projects to enhance the region's economic future include the development of chicken-raising programs, which allows women to receive 12 chickens to produce eggs that they will then be able to sell to their neighbors. Colonel Lancaster is also working with local officials and his U.S. Department of Agriculture counterpart to develop a series of crop projects that use dynamic growing techniques such as row cropping and drip irrigation to improve the survivability and validity of various fruit trees and wheat fields that can then be transplanted around the province to provide more crops, and thus, more income.
"The governor's main focus for this year was agriculture," Colonel Lancaster said. "We are hoping that we will be able to teach them to grow enough crops to not only sell to neighboring countries for money, but also be able to keep some of what they grow for their own uses."
For Army Sgt. Michael Kelly, who serves on Colonel Lancaster's Civil Affairs team and is deployed from Riverside, Calif., the opportunity to take part in these unique projects has been a great experience.
"It is very fulfilling to me to help people in their time of need and during emergencies," said Sergeant Kelly, who also serves as a humanitarian aid requisition, distribution and storage NCO. "Agriculture is a priority of what we do here and it's been an extremely unique experience working here when you look at some of the other things I have done in the Army. Saving lives is a part of what we do."