Afghanistan

Further down the road to Mushan

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C Squadron has now put in more than 80 days on the new road to Mushan. The challenges are constant and each problem is more complex than the last. We knew that this would be a tough job, but we have never doubted our ability to execute it. The workers on the site are tired, but very proud of what they have accomplished to date. Since December, the new Route Hyena has become the C Squadron Combat Team’s trademark. When I call home to pass on my news, my son Vincent, who will be seven next months, asks, “So, how many kilometers have you done on your road?” Changing of the guard

Overall, the make-up of the combat team has not changed, but an entire company from the Afghan National Army (ANA) has replaced the Afghan platoon that was partnered with us. This change has had a major impact on the “Convince” aspect of our mission, because it is now ANA officers who explain, not only the benefits the road will bring, but also — above all — the sacrifices the local people must make to let the new road go through. We have lost the services of the Seabees, a U.S. Navy engineer unit specialized in bulldozer operations and known as the best in Kandahar. Since they left, the combat team’s engineers have redoubled their efforts to make up for their absence. The U.S. Army platoon that was with us from the beginning and built the actual road is going home at last, having completed 12 months of service in Afghanistan. They will be replaced by another American unit, identity as yet unknown. The most important change is not in the combat team at all but at the heart of the local government — Panjwa’i District has a new boss. The new governer is Haji Fazluddin Agha, a man known to be a skilled leader who listens to his fellow citizens. He wants to listen attentively and take concrete action that contributes to development in the district. This has had a direct impact on the road project. Local opinion

Since this project began, one of my primary tasks has been communicating with the local people about the challenges associated with construction of the road and obtaining their advice about the route it takes — for safety and efficiency, the new road does not always follow the original track. In the villages of Sperwan, Zangabad and Mushan, the region’s elders reached consensus and came forward to represent the people. In the community of Talukan, however, for a variety of reasons the villagers never achieved such unanimity; insurgent threats and some property owners’ political weight count for a great deal. The new District Governor, Haji Gazluddin Agha, decided to involve himself in the matter personally. The governor therefore attended several shuras (formal meetings) to hear his constituents’ grievances. The atmosphere was very tense at these meetings, and we were sure that some individuals did not dare to express their point of view. After consulting the coalition forces and the Afghan national security forces, Haji Gazluddin Agha finally found a compromise that satisfied the residents of the bazaar and townships of Talukan. He thus demonstrated that he was the unifying leader that he promised to be. As well as consulting the people who have to live with the road project to reinforce feelings of engagement and belonging, we also make concerted efforts to interact with them in positive ways. We hired several hundred people for projects related to the road. Whether it was for repairing irrigation systems or improving the condition of buildings along the road, our exceptional Civil-Military Co-operation team offered paid work at a time when employment opportunities are rare. We also helped the ANA distribute children’s winter clothing. This event was a grand success. Security challenges

To make progress, the new road must be supplied with gravel every day. Hundr3ds of trucks, driven by honest Afghan workers, must therefore be directed to various destinations on the worksite. To hinder work on the road, the insurgents started targeting the gravel trucks, to the point that they must now be escorted by tanks. The escort has had a very positive effect, helping to dispell the fear of running out of gravel. The threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or homemade bombs is always with us. We have had to slacken the pace of construction and modify the patrols along the road to prevent the laying of these murderous devices. We must stay alert. The Afghan soldiers are absolutely reliable allies in counter-IED operations, finding several. We have been able to dipose of many. The rainy season

Back in November, when this project started, all the engineers insisted that the road must be built before the rainy season, which normally begins in March. Mother Nature is not helping us this year. Torrential rain began a month early, and the soldiers of C Squadron have to work in more than 50 cm of mud. All the civilian vehicles get stuck in the mud, and the combat team has become a towing operation. The tanks have hauled everything from the cars of local residents to ANA vehicles and American bulldozers out of the mud. The accumulation of water is so great that we have had to halt construction of the road for a while. The movement of wheeled vehicles became completely chaotic. Irrigation canals had to be dug all over the place to direct the water away from the road and our camps. There is good news, however: when the road dries, it will be well compacted and therefore very firm. Also it has been the first genuine test of the completed portion of the road — a conclusive test, as the entire stretch of the new surface stood up well. Even civilian cars can use it, despite the enormous quantity of water that has poured onto it. Finishing the road

I can hardly wait to call my son and tell him that the road is finished. We have now completed about two thirds of the roadbed. The fact that the road stood up to the torrential rain we have received is a very good sign. Despite all the hindrances we have encountered up to now, my soldiers’ morale is always excellent. We will soon see our destination, the village of Mushan only a few kilometers to the west. The local people use the road every day, and the smiles that we see on the travellers’ faces is the measure of our success.