One of the most interesting missions I was on in Afghanistan was a trip with the Polish PRT (provincial reconstruction team) to visit several schools in the northern part of Ghazni province (Quaji Omari district). In addition to maintaining 2,500 troops in the Afghan theater, the Poles also hire highly-trained civilians to travel to Ghazni with their troops and assist in humanitarian development projects for the 1.5 million inhabitants of the province. These civilian experts work mainly in the PRT and District Development Group in Ghazni. Many of them hold Ph.D.s or M.D.s., and they provide expertise the American military has come to rely on as coalition forces and civilians work together to stabilize the country. This is Angela, who is the Polish PRT's education specialist:
The Polish reconstruction team has a budget of roughly $14 million per year, which it uses to build infrastructure projects, institute educational programs, and develop health and welfare programs for the residents of Ghazni. I heard time and again from Americans who work in the PRT about how grateful they are that the Polish have brought actual subject matter experts to Afghanistan to work on development. The American military often looks at its pool of available soldiers and evaluates them for specialized skills or training. If they have a lieutenant who took a few civil engineering skills as an undergraduate, for instance, they may send him to the PRT to serve as the engineering representative for the year. The Poles go about things differently: instead of looking for soldiers who may or may not have specialized skills, they specifically hire civilians with advanced degrees in the fields they need covered. The Polish engineering representative is a career engineer, who also works as a civil engineer at home. The Americans greatly appreciate having this level of partner to work with, and the coordination between the American and Polish sides of the PRT is very close, as it is one PRT, run jointly by an American commander and a Polish deputy commander.
There is often a joint element to the patrols, and even though on this particular mission we were going out with the Polish PRT, there were also Americans involved in the projects who rode with us. All missions start the same – we brief the details the night before. Usually a detailed power point presentation with exact route, where the vehicles will stop, turn around, who will guard what entrances where, and what the PRT experts will be doing in the meantime. Here's the lineup for the final briefing before we roll out:
The view from my MRAP window as we drive through Ghazni city:
We visited several schools in one of the most peaceful districts in northern Ghazni province - a surprisingly lush and green area.
Open schools with girls in attendance signal that the Taliban is not in control in this area. That there were desks and pencils for most of the students showed this was one of the best schools in Ghazni.
That's me with the red scarf, although after a few days I stopped wearing them - more on that later.
The boys have classes in a separate tent from the girls, and while they didn't have desks, they seemed just as intent on their studies. My eyes go straight to the blonde-haired blue-eyed boy in the upper right - unmistakable Russian heritage.
The district governor invited us to his compound for tea and cookies. Getting served traditional Polish Krowki (carmel fudge) by the Afghan National Police was probably the last thing I expected would happen to me in Afghanistan. As my grandmother summarized: “Clearly they must be smart people who know what’s good. Everybody knows that Polish candies are the best.” But of course.
What was interesting about meeting with the district sub-governor, is that the PRT commander LTC Kiszkowiak, pictured here with the governor, is that the small talk largely revolved around how the Polish and Afghan people have a shared history of suffering because of their unfortunate geography. Centuries of invasions from both East and West have plagued both countries, and Russian aggression is fresh in the memories of most adults. There was much talk and murmurs of agreement in the room as the Colonel and Governor discussed the shared burdens which have faced their people, and how much Poland understands and wants to help the Afghans.
Here the governor proudly shows us a video of his recent trip to NYC and Ground Zero:
And here are a few other shots from that day:
More of my pictures can be found on my Flickr photostream page here.