Troops ‘committed’ despite Taliban efforts to hinder progress

Lieutenant-Colonel Vangelis Tragazikis, 43, is the commander of the battalion responsible for construction of schools and roads in Kabul (TESAF). He talked about the satisfaction of contributing to the reconstruction of a devastated country and the warm reception that his men have received. What is the role of your battalion in Afghanistan? The main duty of our unit is to build and repair roads and reconstruct damaged school buildings. How have citizens of Kabul reacted to your presence in their city? The reception was, and is, extremely friendly. Wherever we go the locals greet us. Of course, the friendly attitude of our soldiers has influenced this reaction. When Greek soldiers are out on a mission, they offer water or sweets to children. The Afghan people see our flag and realize who we are. Of course there is a sense of friendship that has lingered on since early 2002, when the Greek mission carried out food deliveries to schools. But generally it is the current politeness of Greek soldiers that provokes such a positive reaction. Can you move around Kabul freely without any problems? We don’t go out and about in town. We only go out on missions. The locals have given us a very good reception but one can never ignore the possible dangers. Have there been any attempts by the Taliban to sabotage your reconstruction efforts? No, we have not witnessed anything like that – not that such dangers do not exist but we have a specific unit that provides us with protection while construction efforts are under way. What is your impression of the country? With what image will you leave after your term? It is a country where reconstruction efforts need to continue – and this requires the contribution of Afghan authorities. But it is very satisfying to see the gradual progress being made; even in the short time I have been in Kabul (four months) I have already seen changes [such as] finished roads where there was just wasteland. ‘Cultural influence’ Colonel Georgios Makridis, 50, is the officer in charge of the logistics and welfare of soldiers in the Kabul Multinational Brigade. The colonel described the commitment of international peacekeepers to their mission despite efforts by the Taliban to stop the country from developing. What sort of relationship do the Greek soldiers have with the locals in Kabul? We have limited contact with the locals but when we do see them they react positively when the realize we are Greek. They connect the cultural influence of Alexander the Great, who traveled to Afghanistan, with the support the Greek contingent is currently offering their people. I was impressed by the fact that their minister of tourism, Omar Sultan, speaks Greek and has studied in Thessaloniki. Also we should not forget that the first effort to gather all of Afghanistan’s looted antiquities following the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 was sponsored by Greece. What dangers does your unit face in Kabul? The threat is not posed by the citizens of Kabul but comes without warning from the rival forces, the Taliban, who are doing everything in their power to stop the country from prospering. One of the main targets of the Taliban’s attacks are the schools. This is a common tactic of theirs, aimed at distancing children from their schools and interrupting their education so that they cannot learn to demand the crucial ingredients of a modern society – democracy and freedom. And more often than not the Taliban will strike girls’ schools as the concept of educated women is an anathema to them. What would you say are the reasons for the strong resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan? The Taliban will never abandon their fundamentalist stance. And the more that democracy gains ground in the country, the stronger their reactions will be. But things have changed – people who used to be with the Taliban are now opposition politicians. But it is also important to acknowledge the existence of another war – the war against drugs, upon which the Taliban depend for their funding. Have there been attacks against members of the peacekeeping mission? Not against our contingent since I have been here (five months). Other nations, other missions come under attack every now and then, especially in the south. Perhaps our attitude as Greeks has averted such an occurrence. What does the Greek contingent have to offer that is different from other missions in Afghanistan? Our contribution has taken the form of infrastructure works and social contributions such as medical treatment. We also had the responsibility for flight security until recently (Greek forces were in charge of Kabul airport during the first quarter of 2006). Also, we contribute to education; we go into schools, give stationery to the children, talk to them. Generally, we are trying to help the country get back on its feet. Once it does that, our presence will no longer be necessary. Did you come up against any problems you had not anticipated? On the practical level, no, we had been well trained and prepared for everything. The basic problem is a psychological one due to the absence of one’s family and country. The Greek construction battalion (TESAF) has the advantage of having its own Greek chef and a Greek church, so this is something of an oasis for other Greek soldiers. However, the best spiritual boost was when the Greek armed forces sent a military priest over for Easter to conduct mass for all camps with Greek soldiers. We invited the Orthodox Romanians and Bulgarians and this was a unique moment when our common religion united our different nations on this mission. And I think this is very positive – that different Balkan countries can work together for a common goal. It is a positive development in our relations.