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Consumer Reports

Aid for Afghans comes with Tennessee drawl -- GHOLAMAN, Afghanistan (UPI) From a corner of the sprawling American military base 7 miles west of this southern Afghan city, a unit of unconventionally dressed soldiers ventures out daily beyond the "wire" on special missions of almost immeasurable impact to the lives of thousands of Afghans.

They are not Special Forces teams rooting out al Qaida and Taliban terrorist sleepers, nor are they military intelligence units.

They are Civil Affairs, the people who take the word "help" and turn it into concrete action.

While governments and aid organizations wrestle with a chicken-and-egg conundrum of whether to disburse billions of dollars in pledged assistance monies now -- thus helping improve Afghan political and social stability -- or wait until there is actually measured progress in those areas, the men of the 489th Civil Affairs Unit is hard at work.

"We've built more than 75 individual wells in the past 6 months alone and spent $200,000, which goes a lot farther here than in Philadelphia," said Sgt. Jim Pratt, a contracting officer with the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Reserve unit.

"We're ready to contract for another $200,000 worth of work -- we only wish we had more funds immediately available to do more.

"Schools also have been built or repaired," he added, "but wells are what they really want, and they are necessary for their existence."

Kandahar, a major province and city, was a stronghold of Afghanistan's now-deposed Taliban regime, which banned women from schools and jobs and regularly combed nearby villages for young men to press-gang into its military.

Once renowned for its fruits -- including grapes for raisins -- much of the province is now a nearly desolate moonscape of cracked earth and hard-scrabble living.

Gholaman is typical of the kalays, or villages, outside the city. There are single-storied, adobe-like structures on narrow, pitted paths; scraggly patches of okra and melons from an irrigation well. Barefooted children run to and fro; scruffy dogs pant in whatever shade they can find.

There is only one drinking well in Gholaman for its more than 2,000 people, but the 489th has committed to giving them three more -- a point re-emphasized Wednesday when six civilian-dressed civil affairs people visited with their escort of local anti-Taliban soldiers.

"Well, they're smiling. That's a good sign," Staff Sgt. Turk Yordy said. "I'd smile too if I was getting three new wells and hand-pumps."

Civil Affairs work is not always exactly civil. Extremists have been distributing leaflets for months in the region, warning against cooperation with U.S. troops. On a number of occasions, civil affairs teams have been shot at while returning to base along the twisting, rutted, dust-layered tracks that pass as roads.

A month and a half ago, a Civil Affairs medic was wounded in the ankle in an ambush while returning from Kandahar City. Earlier this year, a Civil Affairs soldier was shot in the face by a passer-by near the unit's office, which was located close to the governor's palace.

Yordy, like other Civil Affairs soldiers, packs a pistol. They also have rifles in their vehicles, and a man sits with a small machine gun on the bed of their four-door pick-up.

The office in Kandahar City has been closed since the shooting incident, and the 489th conducts all its business at the airbase, except when traveling into town to meet with non-governmental aid organizations, local contractors or officials of Afghanistan's interim national government or provincial administration.

The wells at Gholaman will not be built with American labor. Civil Affairs contracts the work out to local companies and individuals, thus helping to create jobs and increase a local sense of involvement.

"It's a different system from what the Afghans are used to," Pratt said. "We have to follow the Army contracting procedure, which is competitive bidding.

"We pay top dollar for the area -- there are no cut-rate deals -- but comparatively speaking, the money goes a long way. Sometimes people may try to take advantage, but mostly we find they go beyond the contract as a sign of goodwill, hoping to get more work.

"We rebuilt a school recently that had a lavatory in it. They not only painted it according to the contract, but they tiled the floors and made sure all the facets were working, at their expense."

Civil Affairs personnel say there has not always been great cooperation with NGOs in the area, despite their common goal of helping the people.

"When I first came into the country early this year, there was some animosity," Pratt said. "Some of the medical NGOs were not happy with our presence," since Civil Affairs is a military organization.

Another said the barrier began to come down following several meetings with the organizations, which are focused on food aid, education and medical help.

One sergeant, after discussions with a U.S.-Afghan aid group that helps women and widows, said plans are afoot to create a small cottage industry in which handicrafts would be sold at the Post Exchanges at U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan to help them earn a living.

Another idea being bounced around is to train paramedics. The trainees would in turn become trainers, equipping others to deal with medical problems in the villages.

Because of a lack of government resources and isolation, villagers now have no alternative but to somehow transport an ill or injured person to a distant hospital in Kandahar City. That means a long walk to the region's one main highway to flag down transportation.

Some would call what the 489th do "nation-building," a bugaboo endeavor after the Somalia debacle. But Col. Jim Huggins, commander of more than 4,000 U.S. troops in Kandahar, doesn't see it that way.

"From my perspective that is not my mission," he said. "My mission here is to destroy al Qaida and the Taliban.

"Yet everything we do here does have a humanitarian component to it. We try to gauge the local population, try to get their support."

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