Efforts to build Afghan road illuminate challenges, possibilities

Knight Ridder NewspapersAugust 9, 2005 

CAMP WOLVERINE, Afghanistan—Set on a high desert plain where dust devils dance across the parched soil, this American outpost of plywood shacks and shipping containers embodies the promise and problems of the U.S.-led effort to pacify Afghanistan nearly four years after the fall of the Taliban.

The U.S. troops based here are striving to bring security, trade, jobs, development and the reach of the far-off central government to this isolated region by building a road from Highway One, the main national highway, at a point near the provincial capital of Qalat, to the town of Shin Kay, near the border with Pakistan.

They're also training and working with Afghan military forces so the Afghans will be able to take over when the U.S. unit goes home early next year under a Bush administration plan to reduce the 18,000-strong U.S. force in Afghanistan.

But the road project is nearly two months behind schedule, beset by equipment shortages, breakdowns and too few men for the job.

Far more serious, resurgent Taliban forces have been using murders, kidnappings, bombings and threatening letters posted in mosques to terrorize local police, workers and contractors into abandoning the Americans.

Taliban sympathizers have tried to infiltrate the camp. A rocket attack just missed the outpost, anti-tank mines have been unearthed along the road, and Afghan drivers of private supply trucks have been killed and their vehicles set afire by motorcycle-borne insurgents firing rocket-propelled grenades.

A new contractor, an American-run firm with Pakistani managers, is searching as far away as Russia for operators for the heavy equipment it's bringing in to supplement the 80-odd members of the 173rd Combat Engineering Company, based in Vincenza, Italy.

"We are fighting a difficult war," acknowledged 1st Sgt. Lauro Obeada, 38, of New York City, a 19-year U.S. Army veteran.

The project's success could deny the Taliban a small part of its traditional base of support among the area's ethnic majority Pashtuns and help bolster the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Failure could fuel already strong local disillusionment with Karzai and his Western allies and help the Taliban, now forced to operate in small groups, re-establish a strong presence in the area and recruit new members.

Camp Wolverine lies some 15 miles east of Qalat, in the Suri area of Zabul Province, a place of lofty peaks, plunging valleys and high desert, similar to parts of northern Arizona. The people nearby are deeply conservative Muslims, living in remote hamlets and eking crops from the hard earth.

Zabul is the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the fugitive Taliban founder who gave refuge to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. It's been at the center of the bloodiest resurgence in violence since U.S.-led intervention ended the Taliban's extreme Islamic rule in November 2001.

More than 800 people, including at least 40 U.S. soldiers, have been killed in the past five months in what U.S. and Afghan officials consider a campaign to disrupt Sept. 18 parliamentary elections.

The U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government forces have responded by moving into remote areas that once were Taliban havens and killing and capturing more than 400 insurgents, U.S. commanders say.

The latest U.S. casualty died in a firefight on Monday in Zabul's Deh Chopan district. The fight also claimed an estimated 16 Taliban members, the U.S.-led coalition announced Tuesday.

Since Camp Wolverine was erected behind barbed wire and blast walls in June, the U.S. engineers have built about two miles of hard-packed, single-lane gravel road. It is eventually to be paved under a separate U.S. aid program.

"It won't be a perfect road, but it should hold up for two years until they can asphalt it," said Sgt. Anthony Davis, 34, of Los Angeles.

The unit, whose usual job is parachuting onto captured airfields with its bulldozers, graders and dump trucks to rebuild damaged runways, is averaging about 300 yards a day—faster than expected, but not fast enough to complete the work without the assistance of local contractors before the unit is scheduled to go home.

Every day before the soldiers begin, a 9-ton armored mine detection vehicle called a Husky and sappers armed with hand-held detectors sweep the road and piles of gravel for improvised explosive devices, which they believe are being laid by a Taliban supporter from a nearby village.

"The biggest IED we've found was an anti-tank mine on top of a 122-mm rocket warhead," said Sgt. Odell Owen of Cedar Mountain, N.C. "They will use anything they can against us."

While no members of the unit have been hurt, U.S. soldiers said a 7-year-old boy nicknamed "Junior" and his 18-year-old brother who worked at the camp were killed by the Taliban after an elder brother ordered them to come home.

Workers hired in Qalat and elsewhere help cook, clean and perform other chores. They live in tents under the protection of U.S. and Afghan government sentries in towers.

The threat of Taliban retribution hasn't dissuaded Saddiq Ullah, a contractor from Qalat, and his assistants from coming out to build a concrete pad for a vehicle maintenance bay.

"I am not afraid of the Taliban. This is a good thing," he said of the U.S. project. "People are feeling good because the Americans have come here and are working. They need to work faster because these are poor people."

There are still 48 miles left to go to reach Camp Sweeney, a U.S. outpost near Shin Kay, and the unbuilt portion of the road passes through an ambush-prone pass in Shingarh Mountain, a dun-colored massif where Taliban fighters flit along trails on dirt bikes and keep watch on the U.S. base from crevices and gullies.

Moreover, the 173rd company's equipment is old and constantly breaking down, and the troops are eagerly waiting for the new contractor to bring in more bulldozers, dump trucks and graders and men to operate them.

Time is quickly slipping by.

"The weather is the time control," said the company commander, Capt. Dan Young, 29, of Edmond, Okla. "The end of November brings the rainy season, and then comes the snow."

Sai Wali, 43, a school principal drafted as the local police chief after his predecessor fled with his men, is a stalwart supporter of the project. But he says 50 percent of the locals now support the Taliban because of the slow pace of overall U.S.-led efforts to rebuild Afghanistan.

The rest, he says, are losing patience, and most regard Karzai, who won election last fall, as an American puppet.

"When the Americans first came out here, people were really happy," said Wali, a short, bright-eyed man who frequently joins Young at meetings to win the support of tribal elders. "But their loyalty is shifting to the Taliban."

Yet Wali, who refused to stop cooperating with the project after he was threatened and the Taliban kidnapped his brother, said the situation can be salvaged if the Americans "double their speed."

Young remains confident. Even if he can't complete the road, what gets completed will change residents' lives for the better and blunt support for the Taliban, he said.

"It won't be the biggest success I'd want it to be," he said. "But it links them with Highway One."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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