Modesto's Conrad relishes time guiding reconstruction work for military

Lt. Col. Bill Conrad thumbs through the three palm-sized journals in which he jotted notes from the 20 months he spent in Afghanistan since early 2008.

The entry from March 30, 2008:

Get airfield fixed!

Seventeen Americans killed.

Back home for about a week, the former Modesto City Council member is making sense of those urgent days. They compose a period in which his varied careers came together in a job that he called the most satisfying of his life, despite the strain of missing his wife and three children.

"Everything I've ever done set me up for what I just did," he said. "I wouldn't say I enjoyed it, but I found it extremely satisfying."

Conrad had key roles in setting up reconstruction projects to help Afghans and boost their government. He got pretty good at it over time, delivering $150 million for road projects in a nine-month period for northern Afghanistan.

"Talk about development. I got to pave the Silk Road," he said, referring to the ancient trade routes that connected Europe to China.

Yet Conrad, a deeply conservative man who ran to the right of Republican Tom Berryhill in a failed 2006 bid for the Assembly, has mixed feelings about the Afghan government his work supported.

Conrad backs President Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, and he thinks the U.S. goals are achievable eight years into the war.

"I think the main reason we're there is to make sure the war and al-Qaida stays on foreign soil and not attacking us here. I think it's containment," he said.

But, "I don't want to support a corrupt government."

"I do believe (the war) breaks up the Taliban and al- Qaida, and I do believe we can win the war, but we have to work more on governance," he said.

Conrad has been lying low since he came back to Modesto, mostly doing projects around the house. He feels Afghanistan in his neck and shoulders. Thin and muscular at 52, Conrad's soreness is a remnant of the body armor he wore for days on end, the metal plates tugging on his muscles.

"I'd get dropped off on a mountain, and I'd be thinking, 'I'm in great shape, but I'm dying,' " he said.

Conrad began preparing for his Afghanistan assignment in 2007. He scaled down a small real estate and construction company he owned with his wife and turned his attention to the military.

He had served in the Army for nine years after graduating from West Point, and stayed in the military in the Air Force Reserve, rising to lieutenant colonel.

That gave him experience in the armed forces, construction, real estate and politics — an unexpectedly ideal résumé for his assignment overseeing provincial reconstruction teams, which combine military officers with civilian experts to execute projects that boost living standards for Afghans.

He spent the bulk of his first nine months in and around Jalalabad, a volatile city near the Pakistan border.

"That was the Wild West. That was the fringes of the battlefield," he said.

His closest call came on a visit to a university south of Jalalabad. He went to persuade the school to open a civil service academy. He and other soldiers cut their visit short when they sensed an unusual degree of tension — students were making obscene gestures at them.

They drove back to their base in a convoy, breaking up in two groups because they expected an attack and didn't want their vehicles too close to a single bomb.

"We knew it was a bad day," he said.

An improvised explosive device embedded in the road erupted underneath a Humvee behind Conrad, killing soldiers in the truck.

"You can sense danger, you learn it while you're there," he said.

Conrad watched the U.S. military escalate its presence over his time in Afghanistan, from fewer than 30,000 soldiers when he arrived to more than 50,000 by the time he left.

That transition included a change in emphasis for the reconstruction work Conrad and others conducted.

Earlier in his assignment, Conrad saw a focus on getting money out the door to build projects, a rush that sometimes led to criminal groups receiving a cut of the proceeds.

"We're paying contractors, and they're having to pay off security. That's bad, and you don't want that to happen," he said.

Later, the military moved to crack down on corruption. He didn't want to disclose details because he said they would reveal classified tactics, but in general, he said the strategy centered on policelike work to track criminals or Taliban members shaking down contractors.

Another level of corruption comes in the form of high- level ministers and governors who grow rich on foreign aid. Conrad said some are untouchable because their appointments come from the Afghan president's office.

Conrad believes it's time for Afghanistan to revise its 2004 constitution to dilute the president's power and hold officials accountable.

"Even their best governors in the U.S. would be charged with racketeering," he said.

Conrad spent plenty of time meeting Afghan governors and top-level bureaucrats. He had a great deal of freedom to leave his base for meetings with officials or to inspect projects under construction with crews of Afghan civilians.

All that time watching a budding democracy in a violent corner of the world changed his politics.

"I'd be less controversial" if he were on the Modesto City Council again. "I'd listen."

That might surprise Modesto voters who remember Conrad occasionally putting his foot in his mouth as a councilman from 1997 to 2003, and in his 2006 race against Berryhill.

But don't expect to see Conrad on a ballot any time soon.

His next dream job would send him to Iraq to work with sociologists and anthropologists on the ground in the other front of the United States' wars in the Middle East. From there, Conrad is considering international work with nongovernmental aid organizations.

The new work abroad suits him, and he's not ready to give it up.

"I feel like everything I did finally started paying off," he said.

Bee Assistant City Editor Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366.