Spartan Soldiers see 'Visible Progress' along Afghan highway
February 16, 2012
ZHARAY DISTRICT, KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Spartan Soldiers from 710th Brigade Support Battalion have significantly improved the lives of Afghan citizens living across Zharay and Maiwand districts through an initiative called "Operation Visible Progress," which is part of Spartan Brigade's nonlethal counterinsurgency campaign. It includes several aspects of improvement along Highway 1, the main road running through southern Afghanistan.
Decades of war and civil strife have damaged Highway 1 and the businesses along it. Most of the buildings have not been painted in years and many had bullet holes and showed other signs of fighting and neglect. Destroyed vehicles and other debris littered the sides of the road.
The 710th BSB received the "Operation Visible Progress" improvement mission along Highway 1 in August. Since then, Spartan Support Soldiers and their Afghan partners from the 5th Kandak of the 3rd Brigade, 205th Afghan Army Corps, have been improving the highway every week.
These improvements include painting signs and road markers, flying giant Afghan flags on poles welded by the battalion's welders, hanging Afghan government and security force banners, removing war debris, repairing mile markers, assisting small business owners in the bazaars along the road and numerous other small projects. The common theme is that all of them make Highway 1 safer and more attractive for the thousands of motorists who use it every day.
"This mission is important for several reasons," said Maj. David Normand, a member of the brigade's Stability Transition Team. "First, it improves the safety for coalition and local vehicles moving along the road. Second, it supports the brigade's counterinsurgency effort by transforming a main road that was littered with the scars of years, into something that the Afghans can be proud of. Third, it is a great opportunity for the 710th BSB to work with the Afghan 5th Kandak.
"It demonstrates to the people that coalition and Afghan forces care about this area and that we are working to improve it," he added.
Assisting small business owners with micro-grants is one of the key initiatives of the mission.
"Micro-grants are an important part of the project because they enable the Afghans to improve their own businesses," said 1st Lt. David Park, executive officer for Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 710th BSB. "The grants are typically for gas station and other small business owners in amounts of ($5,000 to $10,000). The improvements include painting, installation of new pumps, and assisting with generators and wells."
All of the improvements are done by local Afghans, which serves to improve the local economy as well. Shop owners are all grateful for the assistance.
"My business has improved by almost 100 percent since the Soldiers came to help me," said Sarwar, a local business owner. "By providing me the money to paint my station and fix the gas pumps, my business looks professional and people want to stop here."
The mission's other aspects include removing destroyed vehicles from alongside the road. Some of these vehicles had been there for 10 years or more. In addition to being an eyesore to the community, they provided places for insurgents to hide explosives that could be used to attack Afghan and coalition security forces.
One of the most "visible" parts of the "Operation Visible Progress" mission is the Afghan flags and banners that are now seen along Highway 1. There are 10 cellular phone towers in the area that are all located on hills. The Visible Progress team hired local Afghans to paint huge flags on the walls surrounding these towers, which are visible for miles around. Most Afghans are proud of their country's flag, and painting and placing flags across the area sends a clear message to enemy insurgents: that this area is part of Afghanistan and the government is in control.
"Operation Visible Progress" is an opportunity for soldiers of the 5th Kandak to interact with the local population. Afghan Lt. Zaki led many of the missions.
"It is important for the people of Zharay and Maiwand districts to see that the Afghan army is here to help -- we are not the enemy," Zaki said. "For them to interact with us and see that we are the same as they are, is good. The Taliban never did anything to help these people. We are helping them, and they are grateful."
Second Lt. Vincent Fye, a platoon leader with A Company, 710th BSB, agreed that the mission is a great way to help the Afghan people.
"Some of the people are distrustful at first, but after you show them that we are here to improve their country, their attitude changes significantly," he said.
Since August, the improvements along Highway 1 have been significant. More than a dozen micro-grants were written and processed by the BSB. Seventeen destroyed vehicles were removed. More than 200 hazard markers were repaired and repainted. Tens of thousands of Afghans drive past more than 100 flags in the area on their way through Zharay and Maiwand. "Operation Visible Progress" is visible proof the Brigade and their Afghan partners are winning in Zharay and Maiwand districts.