Shell Games

Mar 07, 2007 | Updated May 25, 2011

Oshay clinic2.jpg

Oshay, Afghanistan - As the US Apache helicopter flew over head, two other helicopters, a US Blackhawk and a Dutch Cougar touched down on the gravel landing zone on the edge of the fire base. A vehicle was pulled up near by, as several US soldiers quickly unloaded the bags. From the Cougar two Dutch Army personnel from the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Terin Kowt stepped out and were directed towards the entry gate of the fire base, while another US soldier moved to the Blackhawk to greet the representative from the US State Department. Keeping her head low and quickly walking beyond the limit of the rotor blades, she joined up with the two Dutch visitors as the three of them were escorted off of the air field. In the background the two helicopters took flight again disappearing into the valley with the Apache escort close behind.

The fire base sits on the edge of the village of Oshay situated in the northeast part of Uruzgan Province. As early as October of this past year, one could hardly leave the base without getting attacked. With the arrival of a new US Special Operations team back in November, work began immediately to implement the fundamentals of US counter insurgency tactics. Using a mix of combat patrols and area reconstruction "cash for work" programs, the US Special Operations team began by employing local villagers for projects within the limits of Oshay while increasing its presence in the areas surrounding the village itself. Roads that had been pocketed by erosion and neglect where re-graded and re-graveled. Drainage networks were added to take waste water outside of the village limits. Local labor was hired to refurbish the village bizarre, a key part of Oshay's economy. All the while US Special Operations teams supported by Army National Guard Embedded Trainers and Afghan Army soldiers maintained a regular combat presence both in and around the village. What had been a village with only a few shops in the bizarre, skepticism towards Americans and heavy with Taliban presence, was transformed. On the day that the helicopters landed, one could walk from the fire base into the village safely, greeted by friendly faces eager to talk and do business.

Uruzgan Province has been assigned to the European Community as the source of funding for reconstruction projects. Additionally, the Dutch have been given the responsibility for developing and implementing the majority of the reconstruction effort in the province through their Provincial Reconstruction Team headquartered in Terin Kowt. In spite of this arrangement, all of the reconstruction success in Oshay was funded by US dollars. The EU and the Dutch have been failing to keep their promise of funding, bringing the US to dispatch a US State Department representative to tour the village of Oshay with the Dutch representatives in order to identify the needs, and try and resolve the issue of their contractual default.

Through the remainder of the day and into part of the next, negotiations continued between the US and the Dutch. The local medical clinic was identified as the primary project, with the Dutch promising $150,000 US for the purchase of the buildings, remodeling and equipment for the facility. Contracts were signed, and assurances shared with the US Special Operations team members assigned to reconstruction, thus concluding the visit for the State Department representative who flew out a short while later. As one of the Special Operations team members stated at the time, "This is huge. We can finally establish a regional clinic in Oshay that will be run by Afghans for Afghans."

One of the key elements of US counter insurgency operations is to train and empower the Afghans to not only be participant in operations and programs, but to eventually take the lead. This strategy is cornerstone to the US vision of an eventual end-game and the return home of US forces. In the case of the proposed village medical clinic, it was designed to be run by Afghan trained medical professionals providing health care as basic as personal hygiene education, to medical triage for transport to larger medical facilities. It is a project that allows Afghans to take the lead and to bring the talk of a new unified Afghanistan to the village at a hands on level, effectively, translating the new government's promises into concrete examples of action with Afghans in charge.

The next day I was asked to follow along on the tour of the site for the new facility. Myself, the two Dutch officers, and a Special Operations Civil Affairs medic by the name of Suss walked into the village of Oshay. Suss talked of his vision for the clinic, discussing not only the locals needs for medical services, but of the greater opportunities to use the facility to train health care providers for the region, effectively extending the reach of the clinic to the many smaller outlying villages in the area. As we talked we arrived at a locked metal gate at the front of a compound bordered by ten foot high earthen walls. Removing the lock, Suss pushed the gate open and we went inside.

The clinic was divided into two parallel wings that ran from front to back with a covered breeze-way spanning between. There was a well to my right as I walked up the four steps that lead to the open porch at the front. As I stepped onto the landing, Suss directed me to the first room on the left, "Here we have our pharmacy. The stock is a bit low right now, but we keep a variety of items on hand to cover everything from personal hygiene to the various medical problems that come in here." We continued down the breeze-way looking at other rooms that Suss had set up. "This is our waiting room, and this is a triage/ emergency care room." The facilities looked primitive by US standards, yet they were typical of Army efficiency, placing emphasis on need rather than aesthetic. More to the point, however, the facility was geared towards the needs of the village, providing a level of care that was not available prior to the clinic's inception.

After viewing the rooms, I took a moment to speak to the Dutch officer. He was excited, seemingly overflowing with eagerness to begin the reconstruction. I asked him if the money that the Dutch were providing for the project was US funds. He responded, "No, this will be Dutch money for this project." He continued, "The Afghans do not easily trust. There were many promises broken in the past. First with the Russians, then the Taliban, so it takes time to build trust. Now it is our turn. We need to accomplish this because we will be leaving Afghanistan in two years."

Shortly after the tour, the two Dutch Army officers sat down at a table in the dining facility on the fire base, directing their focus to a map that they had laid out before them. On the map were areas shaded in different colors, with a portion of the village of Oshay shaded in blue. As they talked between themselves in their native tongue, a US Special Operations Civil Affairs team member by the name of Stew sat down across from them. "What is this area in blue?" The two officers looked up, one of them responded, "These are the areas that we have surveyed and identified for additional projects." Stew narrowed is stair, "What survey?" The Dutch officer went on to describe the surveys that their commander had reported doing over the past few months. Stew responded firmly, "There has not been a Dutch team here at this fire base or in the village of Oshay since last September."

The village of Oshay and surrounding areas have a history of being a Taliban strong hold. Fighting through last summer was regular and intense. US Special Operations Teams along with Army National Guard Embedded Trainers and soldiers of the Afghan National Army have made up the fighting force. Through the Fall the Dutch began to establish a presence in Uruzgan Province, with the anticipation of taking over military operations for all bases in Uruzgan by the end of January 2007. However, the restrictions placed on the Dutch by the Dutch government have not only restricted their visits to the outer fire bases but have kept them from becoming fully engaged in operations in areas with a high threat of enemy contact. As the visiting Dutch officer stated, "We came up here in September and it wasn't safe to walk into the village. When we came up here last month the village had become safe enough to walk through, so now we can begin our work." The obvious point that was not stated is that the village had become safe because of the risks taken and successful operations completed by the US Special Operations teams that worked in and round Oshay.

The Dutch are under a great deal of pressure to fulfill their commitments. In this case, it appears that the photographs that the Dutch commander had gathered during his visit in September were then subsequently released over a period of several months to provide visual "evidence" of ongoing work that the Dutch were doing in the outer reaches of Uruzgan Province and the village of Oshay. Yet, as Stew had pointed out, there had not been any Dutch presence at the fire base for months. The two Dutch officers sitting at the table appeared shocked, having little to say in response. A few days later the Dutch team left, returning to Terin Kowt.

Over the next few weeks, the US Special Operations Civil Affairs team continue to push forward with the clinic. The Dutch team pressured the US team to establish contracts with locals to complete the medical clinic remodel per the proposed budget and design set forth by the Dutch. However, no money's were forthcoming from the Dutch. The US team refused to comply with the Dutch request, insisting that the Dutch provide funds first so as not to leave the US with outstanding debts they could not pay. In the end, the Dutch failed to produce any funds, leaving the completion of the clinic to the US Special Operations Team, their resources and their own personal labor. As Stew stated, "Had we set up the contracts that the Dutch wanted us to, and allowed the work to begin,we not have had the funds that we were promised, and the United States would have ended up being the "bad guys" with the locals, not the Dutch. We could have undermined all of the relationships we have worked hard up here to build."

Near the end of February, the clinic was finally opened. Lacking the promised Dutch funding, the US Special Operations Civil Affairs team took matters into their own hands. Using a limited amount of funds that were available to them through US channels, as well as their own labor and labor donated by the locals, the majority of the clinic was completed. The finishing touch came one afternoon with the arrival of a contracted supply truck that had been dispatched by the Afghan government with over $50,000 US worth of supplies for the clinic. Where the Dutch had failed, the Afghan government had come through.

Examples like this remain an ongoing problem here in Afghanistan for US command. While NATO and ISAF forces have deployed here, many of the promises and commitments made to the US are not being upheld. As one US soldier stated, "NATO and ISAF are unwillingness to accept risk, but are more than willing to accept credit for the work done by US forces." In this case, it's unclear who will officially get credit for the medical clinic at Oshay, even though the credit rests solely with the efforts and accomplishments of the US Special Operations Civil Affairs team lead by Stew and Suss. As for the the Dutch officers comment about trust and promises, it appears that they have a ways to go to fulfill their commitment.