KABUL, Afghanistan -- Nearly two hours before the S.C. soldiers arrived, hundreds of people were crowded near the gates of Alo Kheyl School.
Men, wearing turbans, tunics and vests, stood quietly along one side of the compound. Women in ink-blue burqas, holding babies, pressed against a stone wall.
All were waiting to see a doctor at the makeshift medical clinic, one of a half-dozen civil affairs programs supported by the S.C. National Guard's 218th Brigade Combat Team.
In Afghanistan, civil affairs units have been key players in battling insurgent fighters. To beat the Taliban-led insurgency, the United States and its NATO partners need to win the people's hearts and minds, commanders said.
And that's the job of civil affairs.
Task Force Phoenix, commanded by the Guard's 218th brigade, spent $13.1 million this past year on civil affairs projects, including clinics and schools. That's three times more than was spent in the previous year, said the task force's civil affairs chief, Col. Chuck Murff of Spartanburg. Other U.S. and coalition forces have spent additional sums.
Murff thinks the civil affairs push is working.
"It has improved the security situation, because the anti-government forces can't provide what we provide," he said.
Something as basic as drilling a water well can reap benefits, Murff added.
"A community that has a better water supply will feel better toward coalition forces."
One sign the civil affairs effort is working is an increase in public cooperation with Afghan police in thwarting attacks against U.S. and coalition troops, said Capt. David Brooks, head of civil affairs programs in the Kabul area.
"The ANP (Afghan National Police) report that people have called in several instances of finding rockets or (mortar) tubes," Brooks said.
In the past, Brooks added, Camp Phoenix, where the 218th is based, occasionally was the target of an insurgent mortar or rocket attack.
But there have been no direct attacks against the base since the 218th arrived in May, said Brooks of Cheraw. (Last July, though, a suicide bomber attacked a convoy of S.C. troops a few hundred yards from the camp's entrance.)
At events like clinics, Murff said soldiers also pick up intelligence from residents. "People come out and talk to the soldiers. They'll point and say, `Hey, see, those are the bad guys."'
Civil affairs aims to reach as many as people as possible.
For example, 37,000 Afghans have received medical care or food and clothing from the South Carolinians during the past year, Brooks said.
And 16 schools have been built, repaired or are under construction in the Kabul area, Murff said.
The school-building program is geared toward improving education in a country where most adults are illiterate. But it also pumps money into local economies, Brooks added.
One 16-room school costs $175,000 to $200,000. While dirt-cheap by U.S. standards, the cash boosts a local economy, because all the labor is hired in the area.
no handouts here
The civil affairs programs are not handouts, the soldiers insisted.
Projects can be used as leverage to get cooperation from local leaders, Brooks said.
For instance, children from the a village next to Camp Phoenix used to throw rocks at soldiers in the watchtowers and steal concertina wire.
Phoenix's leaders met with local elders, asking them to help stop the rock-throwing. The elders said the children were their parents' problem, not theirs.
"We said, `No, it's your problem,"' said Col. Bob Bradshaw, commander of the 218th's security forces.
The troops made that point by suspending aid to the village. Within days, the rock-throwing ended. The aid programs then resumed.
"If you just give them stuff, they won't respect you," said Bradshaw of Goose Creek.
Added Murff, "They'll play you like a patsy until you stand up."
While the civil affairs effort has had an impact, the troops concede the Afghans' needs remain acute.
"When you see kids walking around in the snow with no shoes, you want to help," said Lt. Brunson DePass of Columbia.
Even after a project is completed, the Afghans often press soldiers for more.
While planning a dedication ceremony at Aziz Afghan School, for instance, principal Farida Saad presented Brooks with a laundry list of more things she wanted done.
More from science lab equipment to computers was needed, she said.
Brooks replied U.S. money can be used only for construction. Other agencies, working through the country's Ministry of Education, would have to provide the computers.
Saad conceded the new building was a giant step forward.
Although the school's 4,700 students still attend classes in three shifts, they spend more time in classrooms. By expanding to 32 classrooms from 16, administrators have been able to nearly double the time students spend in each class to 45 minutes, Saad said.
"You've built a very nice school for us," Saad told Brooks. "When we're asked, `Who built this school?,' we tell them, `Our U.S. friends."'