by DAVID AXE
For such a short journey, it sure did cover a lot of ground.
On March 30, a patrol from the roughly 300-strong Czech Provincial Reconstruction Team deployed to Logar province, eastern Afghanistan, visited two schools in the vicinity of Forward Operating Base Shank, the province’s major NATO outpost. The Czechs’ reception at the two schools could not have been more different — and illustrates the continuing difficulty NATO faces in winning the consent of the Afghan populace. Ten years into the U.S.-led Afghanistan war, progress is still difficult and results, mixed.
The Czechs’ first stop was the Hamid Karzai primary school in the village of Khadar, just a few miles from FOB Shank. Khadar is “no good” for NATO forces, said Lt. Marcel Armlich, the patrol leader. Just a few days prior, an Improvised Explosive Device had exploded alongside a convoy belonging to some U.S. Army engineers as the convoy moved through Khadar. No one was injured, but one American vehicle was damaged and local residents were startled.
Despite this, the headmaster of the Karzai school, Ismatullah, greeted Czech Lt. Jan Karasek at the gate and happily ushered the officer in. In Ismatullah’s second-story office, echoing with the chatter of students down the hall, the headmaster and Karasek discussed the school’s needs and how the Czechs might help meet them. The school needed computers and, to support them, a reliable power source, Ismatullah said. Karasek took careful notes. “I cannot promise anything, but I can promise we’ll come back very soon,” Karasek said.
As the Czech officer prepared to leave, Ismatullah protested. “But we haven’t had tea yet!”
There a clear explanation for the congenial meeting at the Karzai school: it wouldn’t even exist in its current form without the Czechs. Between September 2009 and August 2010, the Czechs invested several hundred thousand U.S. dollars in building brand-new facilities for Ismatullah and his 15 teachers. Karasek’s meeting represented continued support for the school.
Just a few miles away, the situation was completely different. At a primary school in the neighboring village of Darvish, the headmaster wouldn’t even allow Karasek to walk through the gate. The Afghan administrator insisted that no weapons enter school grounds, and that NATO troops be accompanied by Afghan soldiers or police on every visit. Even when a Czech soldier passed a large box of school supplies through the gate, the headmaster was firm: the Czechs must not enter.
Karasek was gracious. He promised to return later with Afghan forces. It’s possible future visits will go more smoothly. After all, Karasek is new to the PRT. As the team’s civilian head Petr Svacina explained, in Afghanistan all progress depends upon relationships — and relationships take time. “You have to drink a lot of tea,” Svacina said.
If there was a positive side of the encounter, it was as described by one U.S. Army officer in the wake of the Czech mission. That the headmaster preferred to deal with Afghan forces is evidence of the Afghan troops’ growing legitimacy in some parts of Afghanistan. “That’s exactly what we want,” the American officer said.