FRONTLINE/World reporter Roya Aziz travels to an outpost north of Kabul where U.S. military are helping to rebuild schools, clinics, and roads in the region.
FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz received a master's degree from the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005. She lives in Kabul, where she works at an Afghan media and communications agency. Previously, she worked at an international media development group, assisting radio stations and training journalists. Her last report, a feature about a veteran women's advocate who was assassinated, aired on Afghan national television. She is currently trying to build a youth radio program for Afghan teens. She also writes regularly from the region for FRONTLINE/World.
I arrived in the middle of the night at Bagram, the U.S. military base 40 minutes north of Kabul. At one of the main gates, a smiling soldier gave my backpack a cursory rummage and waved me through, with an Arabic expression wishing me a good night. I know a little conversational Arabic and had half a mind to tell him he was in Afghanistan, not Iraq, but I decided to move on.
Bagram is concrete and cold, a sharp contrast to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, where European and American soldiers can sit under gazebos in a grassy yard or drink real espresso in a cozy little cafe. Bagram does have a tree-lined avenue, but the place is pretty much what you expect from a base: functional and basic.
There's a two-week waiting period for journalists requesting to embed with any of the country's reconstruction teams. I had gotten word just a few days earlier that I had been approved to tag along with the Bagram Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Although the Bagram PRT is part of the U.S. military, all PRTs in Afghanistan operate under the control of ISAF.
I was shown to the media relations department, where a couple of soldiers prepared my embed press pass and showed me a cot I could crash on. One of the soldiers asked me where Kabul was -- he had just arrived from the United States three weeks earlier and would probably not leave the base. At 8 o'clock the following morning, I was scheduled to head out with a team of soldiers to deliver medical supplies to nearby villages. But by 7, it was clear that thunder and torrential rain had put the mission on hold.
"It wouldn't be fair to make people stand in the rain [to receive the supplies]," explained Capt. Jessica Miller, who is in charge of public information for the Bagram PRT.
In the provinces around Bagram, where security is good, nongovernmental aid groups could easily do the reconstruction and humanitarian work, but the PRTs -- the brainchild of the U.S. government -- are a key public relations tool. The aim is to convince local people that NATO -- backed by the U.S. military -- is in the country to serve, not to dominate. These reconstruction efforts are also an effective way for local governors to portray the image of a government in action, working for its people. In some regions, PRTs have overseen the construction of mosques and radio stations. They also regularly deliver much-needed humanitarian aid.
As bad weather had put paid to seeing how these missions operate firsthand and hearing from villagers about how successful they are, I spoke instead to Col. Donald Koehler and Maj. Donald Johnson, two U.S. officers in charge, about how these good works projects are organized in the province. When I arrived back in Kabul, I also spoke with outgoing ISAF spokesperson Col. Tom Collins about the overall humanitarian mission in the country and how ISAF is dealing with Taliban efforts to derail the process.