By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
March 20, 2009 - Myriad construction programs under way in Afghanistan are helping to improve security and provide a better future for the people of that war-torn country, the chief of the U.S. military engineering effort there said here today. Those construction projects play a role in the counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan, as new roads, bridges, buildings and other facilities assist security efforts as well as economic and governmental development, Army Col. Thomas E. O'Donovan, commander of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghanistan Engineer District, told reporters during a Pentagon news conference.
"Roads and other infrastructure are absolutely underpinnings" of U.S., coalition and Afghan government efforts to establish security and stability across the country, O'Donovan said.
"You can't get security into an area if you can't get into the area," said O'Donovan, who has been posted in Afghanistan since June.
O'Donovan said his 370 military and civilian volunteers with the Afghan Engineer District in Kabul are overseeing the countrywide construction of new administration buildings, barracks, dining facilities, border checkpoints and other facilities that will serve an expanding Afghan army and constabulary.
The Afghan government's Ministry of Energy and Water, he said, is focusing on irrigation, hydro-electric projects and other water-management projects.
The United States was involved in a previous, less-than-successful hydroelectric project in Afghanistan from the 1950s to the 1970s that was known as the Helmand Valley Authority, O'Donovan said. That project, he said, was modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority hydro-electric project that was part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal economic program during the Depression. Some dams were built for Afghanistan's HVA, but the project eventually was abandoned due to rising costs and other difficulties.
Challenges encountered during the old HVA project "really demonstrate the difficulties of doing water construction and water management in Afghanistan," O'Donovan said.
However, U.S. and Afghan officials are pressing on, O'Donovan said, and are "looking at [water] projects that are multi-purpose, designed to provide irrigation and secondary purposes of flood control, hydro-power, silt management, bank erosion control" and other programs.
U.S.-sponsored construction projects in Afghanistan, O'Donovan said, also include the building of logistics facilities to support U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency personnel and Afghan government investigators as part of efforts to combat the opium-growing and narcotics industry there.
O'Donovan said his organization also is involved the construction of Afghan National Police barracks and border police checkpoints and other facilities.
Afghanistan is a beautiful country that "looks like the 17th century with cars and cell phones," O'Donovan said.
"It is a very agricultural country, and it's a country that's been at war for 30 years," O'Donovan noted. Despite the challenges, he said, the Afghans are determined to create a better way of life for themselves.
The Afghans "are a very hard-working people and they are determined to lift themselves out of their situation," O'Donovan said.
Among the challenges of rebuilding Afghanistan, O'Donovan said, are insurgents who attack construction sites and disgruntled Afghan contractors. "The onsite security can be very challenging," O'Donovan said. "If the local insurgent leadership decides that project is a direct threat to them in some way, they will go after it. Or, if the local contractor didn't get the job, ... he may go after it."
Additionally, he said, construction needs such as cement and steel and finished products such as doors must be shipped into Afghanistan.
"Afghanistan doesn't produce much in the way of construction materials," O'Donovan pointed out.
Still, he said, he is convinced things are getting better in Afghanistan.
"Construction is challenging there – and there're a lot of reasons why it's so challenging – but, we are very steadily making progress in a wide variety of areas," O'Donovan said.
"When you see these facilities finished, and you see the people move into them and begin to use them for what they were designed to do, it is a clear, absolutely unequivocal demonstration of how we are making progress," he said.