Panjshir valley, AFGHANISTAN - The news out of Afghanistan lately has been anything but good.
A Taliban resurgence, troubles with Pakistan and not enough U.S. troops to go around are major issues that leave serious questions about our ability to win the war there anytime soon.
On my recent journey across Afghanistan, however, I spent some time in one northern province where Taliban attacks never happen and incredible progress is being made.
What's even more amazing is that this was once the most dangerous place to live in the entire country -- the Panjshir Valley.
Home of Fierce Fighting
The Panjshir Valley was the scene of some fierce fighting back in the 1980's between the soviets and the local mujahedeen. Even after nine offensives, the Russians were unable to capture the Panjshir valley, as evidenced by all these tanks that litter it today.
But where the Red army failed with tanks and bullets, a team of Americans is succeeding today by simply lending a helping hand.
"Our mission here in Afghanistan is threefold. Reconstruction, Security, and Governance," Lt. Col. Russell Kaskell, Commander, Panjshir PRT said. "We're here to kinda help the Afghans help themselves."
The unit is called the Panjshir Provisional Reconstruction Team. It's made up of men and women from the Army, Air Force and State Department plus specialists in areas from Civil Affairs to Engineering.
"In a nutshell, the PRT is here to win the hearts and minds of the local Afghans, to turn them against the Taliban, to eventually have them bring the Taliban to us rather than us going out and looking for them," Capt. Jefferey McGinnis, PRT Engineer said.
I rode along with the team as they drove around the valley checking on various projects. Here, a clinic is being built that will serve locals from miles around. After a quick chat with the contractor, we head out to another project.
"This is one of our newest schools that we just finished constructing," McGinnis said. "What we're going to do is go through the building and make sure there's no cracks no scratches or anything before they have their grand opening tomorrow."
Even though the school isn't open yet, the local children can't wait to start studying. We hand out a few educational materials then it's back on the road this time to a hydroelectric plant that will bring electricity to this part of the valley for the first time in history.
Up until now, this has been a grain mill and watching the flour being made, I realized just how primitive life has been in this valley.
Opium Poppies, Weapons
Several international aid organizations are offering rewards to any Afghan district that stops growing opium poppies and turns in its weapons. Panjshir is at the front of the line, already having been declared "poppy free."
And in the Anaba district the number of arms surrendered was truly astounding.
Clearly, the Panjshiris have decided it's time to turn their swords into plowshares -- and maybe this is one reason the U.S. military has never lost a single soldier in this province.
Some of the places this Provisional Reconstruction Team goes are pretty hard to get to. We left the road about five miles back and got on these horses, and now we're up over 9,000 feet in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. We're going to check on a school that they've been building - see how the progress is coming along, trying to bring education to some of the farthest reaches of Afghanistan.
We finally made it to the village of Aryu, where the school was coming along nicely.
The team, however, also made an unfortunate discovery.
Some farmers have grown a thriving crop of opium poppies. Apparently they didn't get the memo that Panjshir has gone poppy free. The team sits down with the village elders and discusses things over a meal of flat bread and goat meat.
Later, I spoke with the commander of the Mujahadeen security force that always accompanies the team. As it turns out, this man fought the Russians in the 1980's. I wanted to know why, then, he and his tribesmen were so welcoming when the Americans arrived two decades later.
"The Russians wanted to occupy our land. The Americans are here and they brought peace, security and they brought reconstruction," Commander Zardot Mujahadeen said. "Back then we didn't have any hope, we didn't know if we were going to be alive tomorrow or not., and so we didn't think about their kids going to the school, but right now we have high hope for our kids that they will go to school and become members of society."
Model for Afghanistan
The Panjshir valley could someday become a model for an ideal Afghanistan. And while that may take a generation, this PRT Team is doing their part to ensure that the children of the Panjshir will grow up with a positive view of America, which should make the world a safer place.
"Our mission here is really making America safer," Kaskell said. "We're putting in a lot of schools, clinics - basic services that are needed to help the younger generation grow up in a society that respects their government, respects the rule of law, and eventually we believe will not go to the alternative, which is extremism."
*Orginally published December 16, 2008