Alison Blosser is a State Department Representative/Political Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Alison's next post: Priovincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan
Flying in a Chinook helicopter up the Kunar river valley into mountainous Asadabad is a spectacular way to arrive at post. I have come to Afghanistan following a one-year tour as a Political Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, ready to develop a truly cross-border perspective of tribalism, development, insurgency, and Pashtun hospitality.
My home/office has become a dorm room at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Asadabad, Afghanistan, where I am the State Department representative (and currently sole civilian) liaising with a Naval Commander, a robust military Civil Affairs team of officers and NCOs, and a professional and experienced force protection element to address provincial and local governance, infrastructure development, and overall security.
After a week of orientation briefings and check-in at Kabul Embassy, where I lived in a "hooch" (read: modified shipping container split into two rooms and faux-wood-paneled with bathroom, TV/DVD, mini-fridge, Ethernet, phone, microwave, twin bed, and shelves), I flew out to Jalalabad Air Field (JAF)....
...As a stowaway on the flight carrying Deputy Secretary John Negroponte, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher, and staff. They paid visits in early September to Afghanistan and Pakistan, key allies to the United States in the War on Terror and critical partners to improving regional stability in south Asia. (Needless to say, the C-130 was plenty spacious for a "strap-hanger" and her three giant bags plus body armor issued by the Embassy.) From Jalalabad, I boarded the Chinook and landed in Kunar province.
Since arriving in Asadabad in mid-September, I have removed about 2 pounds of dust from my room, unpacked, set up like a college student, and re-met all the guys and the few gals I met last March during civil-military training at Ft. Bragg. The night stars here are stunning, and there are hardly any lights on the hills nearby (no electrified villages). The mountains are craggy, dusty, deforested, and enormous.
Ramzan, the Islamic month of fasting, began just as I arrived, and with it the season of fast-breaking at sundown. The PRT hosted an Iftaar reception and dinner with the provincial governor, who allowed us to use his downtown compound and invited most of the provincial cabinet. At Iftaar, those who have been fasting all day await the sundown call to prayer. As the call to prayer is sounded, everyone takes a date and some "sharbat," usually juice or rose-flavored fizzy water. Then everyone goes to offer prayers. Once they return, the group eats dinner together – the table was heaped with mounds of rice, goat and mutton meat, chicken, sweet late summer grapes, and fruit chaat (a dish common on Ramzan tables – pomegranates, bananas, apples, grapes, and fresh yogurt). Although Afghanistan's cuisine is blander and uses fewer spices than further southeast on the subcontinent, the fruits, particularly pomegranates, are the sweetest in the world and add exotic flavor to many meals.
The Provincial Reconstruction Team took foodstuffs out to each of 14 provincial districts to augment food supplies for the neediest people during Ramzan, with the hope that their Eid tables would be bountiful. We also included religious items such as prayer beads and extra new copies of the Koran for mosques in remote areas. District Administrators worked with the PRT and local elders to appropriately distribute these items among villages.
Our engagement is much broader than simply humanitarian assistance during holidays. As I continue my tour here, I will describe some programs to assist the Afghan government to be able to provide security, stability, service delivery, and effective governance. These include training the Afghan National Police, encouraging the transformation of former personal militias into security protective forces that can join legitimate law enforcement entities, working with the governor and line-ministries to publicize their efforts on radio and television, and building or re-building schools, mosques, wells, river-control walls, roads, and more.