Their presence in Afghanistan is subtle. A solitary P-3 patrol plane, outfitted with sensors for over-land surveillance, shares a remote ramp with U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships at Bagram Air Field outside Kabul. At forward operating bases in the country’s arid south, construction battalions — the famed Seabees — build runways and wooden huts for U.S. Marines advancing into Taliban territory. U.S. Navy sailors are a rare breed in land-locked Afghanistan. Although few in number, they play key supporting roles.
For sailors, assignments to Afghanistan can be surprising. No one knows this better than Cmdr. Kyle Higgins. The lean, gray-haired officer spent most of his career flying EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare jets off of aircraft carriers. Higgins even rose to command one of the electronic attack squadrons. Today there are a handful of Prowlers, belonging to the Marine Corps, based at Bagram to help disrupt Taliban communications. But Higgins has nothing to do with them.
Instead, he commands an ad-hoc group assigned to help rebuild civilian infrastructure, mostly agricultural in nature, in the communities surrounding Bagram. Three decades of warfare have allowed roads, irrigation and local government processes to fall into disrepair. The slow, often frustrating process of rebuilding is a vital but largely unheralded aspect of a conflict where winning the consent of the local population is a prerequisite to defeating extremist groups.
How did a jet pilot come to lead the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Parwan? Higgins shrugs when asked. “Command is command,” he says.
In truth, Higgins is not required to have much practical knowledge of agriculture or engineering. For that, he has a staff of around 100, including U.S. State Department governance experts, agricultural experts from the Kentucky Army National Guard, U.S. Army engineers, Afghan lawyers, engineers and interpreters and a contingent of soldiers for security. In March, the full team was just arriving. Higgins and a few others deployed early to begin laying the foundation for the next year’s worth of projects. These might include roads, bridges and irrigation systems.
Prior to Higgins’ group’s arrival, Parwan province had only a modest, eight-person reconstruction team provided by the local U.S. Army task force.
On March 11, members of Higgins’ advance party visited the village of Qaleh Yusbashi, right outside the Bagram Air Field gate, to see about repairing irrigation systems that were disrupted when the airfield was built by the Soviets more than 20 years ago. A lack of water has slowly dried up a majority of Qaleh Yusbashi’s once-thriving vineyards.
Army Col. Marion Peterson, one of Higgins’ engineers, sat down with a man named Wali, the village’s doctor and self-appointed project manager. They discussed installing an 18-inch pipe to bring in as much as 1.8 million gallons of water per day. “It’s a fairly easy project,” Peterson says. And it matches the profile for the kinds of projects NATO will pay for out of its Commander’s Emergency Response Program funds, a pot of money for quick reconstruction.
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