AF Team in Afghanistan Aims High on Low Terrain

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2007 - Far below their accustomed bird's-eye view of Afghanistan, about 240 U.S. airmen with boots on the ground there are working to build vital infrastructure as members of provincial reconstruction teams.

Twenty-four PRTs are stationed across Afghanistan, and in April 2006, the Air Force began leading six of the teams. Each is made up of about 90 members, including 40 active-duty airmen and 50 active and reserve-component soldiers. Soldiers mainly provide each team's protection while airmen like Capt. Rockie K. Wilson, team leader for the Qalat PRT, manage highway, hospital and government construction projects.

"Airmen are in the fight," Wilson told reporters at the Pentagon today. "We are part of the global war on terrorism right there with our Army, Navy and Marine counterparts."

The international community established interdisciplinary PRTs as "transitional structures" to improve Afghanistan's security through reconstruction and economic development. Teams assist local authorities, non-government agencies and United Nations agencies in support of the country's elected government.

"What a PRT ultimately is there for is to provide the outreach, provide the legitimacy of the government of Afghanistan, to help facilitate ... the overall governance of their areas and their people," he said.

Wilson said the infrastructure mission in Afghanistan is making progress, though Taliban intimidation presents a significant challenge.

"While I was there I was overseeing the construction of about 70 miles of road, a number of bridges and different facility projects pushing out into these areas where the government has had difficulty in the past," Wilson said.

Working from August to December 2006 alongside his Afghan counterpart, known as "Engineer Nassir," Wilson led his PRT as it built an important highway beginning in Qalat, located about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, and ending in Mizan. This 70-mile transportation artery crossed three Afghan districts and "extended the outreach" of government-sponsored public works projects, Wilson said.

Besides the infrastructure projects he managed while deployed, Wilson also oversaw the construction of a conference center, a hospital and its dormitory, a fire station and the governor's guest house.

For their labor, Afghan construction workers are paid "a couple bucks a day" in cash wages that are disbursed when workers meet milestones set by the PRT, Wilson said. "The construction cost (in Afghanistan) is very low compared to what you'll see here," he said. "To us it was not much, but to them it was a very nice sum of money."

Some higher-wage construction projects require laborers to work in dangerous areas, making workers vulnerable to Taliban assault. While en route to one such building site in Khaki, Afghanistan, Taliban fighters ambushed Wilson's convoy and killed an Afghan servicemember.

The Taliban "paid dearly that day," he said.

Afghanistan has an unemployment rate of roughly 40 percent, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's 2005 estimate, and though Afghan laborers can face intimidation from Taliban operatives, construction work in the country is highly coveted.

To meet and mold this prospective labor pool, the Qalat PRT set up a trade school to teach 10- to 15-year-old boys carpentry, welding, concrete mixing and other construction trades, Wilson said, allowing them to work "hand in hand."

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