Afghanistan work not over, Corps employee tells group

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 16, 2003

[7/16/03]A U.S.-led coalition of 22 countries is working toward its goal of an Afghan force of 70,000 troops, an Army Corps of Engineers manager said here Tuesday.

Sam Stacy, a civilian engineer, returned in late May from a five-month assignment in Afghanistan.

“They’re training about 600 troops every 45 days,” said Stacy of the budding Afghan army, for which his job was to direct a 28-member international team building barracks, he told members of the Vicksburg Kiwanis Club.

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“After they train them, they have to house them,” he said, adding that without the barracks, many of the soldiers continued to live in tents.

The Afghan army has about 2,700 soldiers with 1,200 others in training, according to the Defense Department. The coalition wants the Afghan central government to have a loyal force capable of preventing the re-emergence of groups that support or perpretrate terrorism, it said.

While Stacy was in Afghanistan, his team built 12 barracks buildings and renovated 42 others at a base near near Kabul, the country’s capital, he said. The team also completed other on-base and related projects, including rifle ranges, tank-training facilities and a 30-mile highway. Some of the work was done by Afghan contractors who had no power equipment, he said.

Stacy, who has worked with the Corps for 20 years, is employed with its geotechnical engineering branch, working with soils and foundations.

“It was a lot of the same work I do here, only over there” Stacy said.

The team’s mission was to use Afghan labor and materials as much as possible, he said. It employed over 1,000 Afghan workers, who were making about $1.25 a day, during which they would work about 10 hours.

Many of the Afghan workers “would bring their kids to work, and they would work right alongside their dads,” Stacy said. He added that many of the workers would also stop three times a day to pray.

Afghanistan is in transition. For years it has had essentially no central government, but has instead been ruled by warlords from a variety of groups, Stacy said. “Whoever was the big guy on the block kind of controls the country,” Stacy said.

Taliban forces controlled much of the country until U.S. and allied military action in support of its opposition following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks forced its downfall. Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whose inauguration resulted from a 2001 conference in Germany of opposition leaders and exiles, is up for re-election next year, Stacy said.

The pending election is one reason that the transitional government, with coalition help, is “trying to get as many soldiers trained as possible,” Stacy said. He added that his team often worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week.

The team also included the Vicksburg District’s Ronnie Mackey, Stacy said. “There were 10 civilians, and the rest were military,” he said. “We also hired local engineers to work as interpreters.”

The country, slightly smaller than Texas, has a population of 27 million. About 2 million of those people live in the Kabul area.

“But it’s not like our cities,” he said, showing an aerial photograph of small structures spread over a large area. “They don’t have big buildings. Most of the houses are made out of mud-brick.”

Many of Afghanistan’s people are poor. About two-thirds of their country is mountainous, and about 80 percent of them are involved in agriculture, Stacy said.

The global war on terrorism continues, and “soldiers were out every day looking for Taliban and al-Qaida,” he said.

The assignment was Stacy’s first with active-duty military in such a situation, he said. Before he left, he spent a week preparing at Fort Benning, Ga., he added.