MAYDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan — U.S. Army Capt. Matthew Crowe trained to obliterate distant foes with high-explosive shellfire. But in this mud-washed, mountain-framed provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan, he is learning to be a diplomat, urban planner, construction manager, humanitarian worker and politician.
As the overseer of the first sustained American aid effort launched in the city eight years after the U.S. intervention that drove the Taliban from power, the 32-year-old artillery officer is having to master skills that he's not been taught by the military.
But those skills are crucial to the Obama administration's plan to end the Taliban insurgency in part by delivering on unfulfilled U.S. vows to lift ordinary Afghans out of the crush of poverty and illiteracy.
"Dealing with the locals is the most important thing I do," Crowe said Sunday after he and some two dozen of his troops from the 4th Battalion, 25th Field Artillery Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, based at Ft. Drum, N.Y., returned from only their second walking tour of this snowy, destitute city since arriving in mid-January.
"Blowing stuff up doesn't have the same effect of what I can do in the town by helping the locals," said Crowe, whose men usually roll through the city in heavy armored vehicles. "Security still has to be a priority, but I tell my soldiers they are not here just to kill bad guys."
Crowe spent much of the four-hour tour closeted in municipal offices ringed by razor wire-topped concrete walls, a sign of the Taliban's presence in the city, with Abdul Kabir Ebrahimi, the recently appointed mayor, reviewing aid projects that the U.S. military is proposing to fund.
The proposals are basic: building a $684,000 system to pump clean water to the filth-strewn bazaar, the city's only major income source; improving sanitation with garbage collection points, trucks and a landfill; and providing the municipal government with $2 million in badly needed construction equipment like a crane and a backhoe.
Ebrahimi presented his own list of needs: a minibus to transport municipal staff to and from work, a covered gym to supplement a soccer field and basketball courts that fierce mountain winds sometimes render unusable, and sidewalks and paved parking lots in the bazaar.
"Do you have one park in your plan, or can we increase the number?" Ebrahimi, who worked for the Afghanistan office of Bearing Point, a U.S. consultancy, before accepting his first public post, asked Crowe.
The United States hopes that by partnering with officials like Ebrahimi across the country, popular faith can be restored in local authorities, whose years of flagrant misrule and rampant corruption are driving people into the arms of the guerrillas.
The way that U.S. commanders see it, neutralizing the Taliban and allied groups is especially critical in Maydan Shahr.
The ethnically mixed city of some 80,000 people is the administrative center of Wardak Province, which controls the southern gateway to Kabul, a 45-minute drive north on the main national highway. The highway also serves as the chief U.S. military supply route from Pakistan and the garbage-strewn city's main street.
Maydan Shahr, with its dirt streets, lack of clean water and no major private employers, provides a snapshot of the massive hurdles the United States and its NATO allies still face in pacifying the Taliban's strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
There was virtually no Taliban presence in Maydan Shahr until last year. Insurgent leaders believed to be wintering in Pakistan's nearby tribal region have been recruiting among the area's dominant Pashtun ethnic group. Even some senior city officials are now said to support the guerrillas, who often target public workers.
"One of my finance guys was killed by the Taliban and they arrested my secretary's family when they came to visit him from Kabul. He had to pay a ransom," said Ebrahimi.
The first major U.S. military contingent to be based in the city — about 1,500 troops of the 10th Mountain Division — at a fortress-like compound right off the city's main traffic circle is frequently targeted by ambushes and roadside bombs.
Making matters worse, the municipal treasury is all but empty, making Ebrahimi almost totally dependent on U.S. financing and raising serious questions about whether the projects that the United States funds can be sustained once the money stops.
The municipal tax base is tiny, and U.S. officers said the former mayor disappeared with bundles of cash, leaving unfinished projects and unpaid contractors who Crowe and Ebrahimi are trying to pacify with pledges of eventual compensation.
"I've been left in a very difficult position," said Ebrahimi. "There is no money. There is no more land (for the city) to sell. It's very difficult to meet expectations. Sometimes I feel guilty that these people don't believe the government can help them."
Crowe and Ebrahimi, flanked by aides and protected by U.S. troops on alert for suicide car-bombers, strolled out of the municipal compound to inspect the sites of some of the proposed projects.
Clusters of merchants and customers watched them tour the bazaar, a complex of scores of small, mostly empty shops bordering open lots of ankle-deep, custard-like mud that dissuades locals from patronizing any but the stores on the main street.
"This bazaar is a big problem. Look at the mud. There is no clean water. There are no toilets," Mohamad Kabir, a butcher, said as he watched the entourage pass, a light snow falling. "We need an active municipal government."
Crowe acknowledged that the rural poor, the Taliban's main support base, are the most critical section of Afghanistan's more than 30 million people that the intensified U.S. aid effort must reach.
But the 6-week-old U.S. military contingent in the city has yet to penetrate far into the countryside, and Crowe said he believed that Maydan Shahr could become the hub of a wider aid effort.
"I want to focus on Maydan Shahr," he said, "because it becomes a very visible sign of how we are here to help."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009