War on Terrorism

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Corps of Engineers Preps for Afghan Surge While Looking Long-Term

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

Dec. 4, 2009 - As 30,000 additional troops move into what admittedly will be "pretty austere conditions" in Afghanistan, the Army Corps of Engineers is working in partnership with unit-level engineers and contractors to provide basic creature comforts -- while focusing heavily on longer-term projects considered critical to their ultimate success there.

Army Col. Kevin Wilson, commander of Afghanistan Engineer District – South, told American Forces Press Service he expects as many as two-thirds of the surge troops to move into Regional Commands South and West, his area of responsibility.

Initially, they should expect "some tough conditions," Wilson admitted, bedding down in tent cities both at their arrival point and at the forward operating bases they move out to. "That means it is going to be cold in the winter, and really hot in the summer," he said.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan has geared up the entire engineering community to provide the incoming troops the support facilities they'll require. Troop engineers and the contractor-supported LOGCAP program -- Logistics Civil Augmentation Program—will provide amenities such as dining, laundry and post exchanges.

Meanwhile, the Corps will focus on the "enduring facilities" – larger, permanent projects aimed not just at accommodating the troop buildup, but also at supporting security and economic growth in Afghanistan long after they leave.

These include permanent facilities for the Afghan national security forces. They range from administrative, barracks and training buildings to accommodate 600-man Afghan army battalions, known as Kandaks, to smaller Afghan National Police outposts in some of the country's most remote and inaccessible regions.

Meanwhile, the Corps also is overseeing multiple infrastructure and development projects that promote economic development and stability.

"This really boils down to roads, power and water," Wilson said. Roads will promote commerce within Afghanistan and with its neighbors. Power generation facilities, water and wastewater facilities will improve quality of life, while driving other economic and political efforts.

Wilson said he expects these projects to increase as more U.S. and NATO forces roll into Afghanistan. That's because there's wide recognition that the collective impact of these efforts will be U.S. forces' "ticket home" from Afghanistan.

"The sooner we are able to stand up a functioning [Afghan] army and police force, and the sooner that we are able to get them on the road to economic growth and prosperity, the sooner we get to leave," he said. "We have a piece to play in helping create an Afghanistan that is a stable, moderate Islamic republic, and that is our intent."

But accomplishing engineering success in Afghanistan is no easy task. Wilson pointed to one of the most important infrastructure efforts under way – the Ring Road highway -- as an example of the challenges being faced.

The road, when completed, will connect Afghanistan's major cities and villages, opening more Afghan markets and enabling Afghan manufacturers and entrepreneurs to increase their trade with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other neighbors.

But with just 145 miles not yet built, the project is still four to five years from completion, Wilson said. That's because it cuts through some of the most inhospitable terrain imaginable, from both geologic and security standpoints.

And, like every other U.S.-supported infrastructure project under way in Afghanistan not directly related to U.S. troop support, it's being built almost entirely by Afghan workers.

"Could you build the road much quicker? Yes," Wilson said. "But is it better to break it down into segments, and provide the jobs that are needed here and foster that good will? Yes."

As Afghanistan Engineer District – South takes the more deliberate approach to most of its projects, Wilson said it's moving as quickly as possible to accommodate the incoming U.S. forces.

He admitted he felt a bit like "a duck on a pond" earlier this week when President Barack Obama announced the new troop commitment, and a six-month timetable for getting the new forces on the ground.

"Up above, everything is nice and calm," Wilson said, a broad grin projecting through the telephone lines from his headquarters in Kandahar. "But underneath the water, its feet are paddling like crazy."

For the Corps of Engineers, the paddling actually started this spring when Obama announced plans to send an additional 20,000 Marines to southern Afghanistan. Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp recognized the "tidal wave of work coming in" as a result, Wilson said, and stood up a second engineering district in Afghanistan to concentrate on operations in the south and west.

Nowhere is the fruit of those efforts more evident than at Kandahar Air Base, which has grown from 9,000 predominantly NATO forces in September 2007 to its current 25,000-troop population. Wilson estimated that it could grow to as much as 35,000 when the additional troops begin arriving, before they fan out to other parts of the region.

When the 20,000 Marines arrived in Afghanistan this past spring and summer, the big push was to "get them out of tents and out of the dirt" and into housing, Wilson said. The Marines also required infrastructure support: electricity, potable water, waste facilities, as well as headquarters buildings, aircraft facilities, ramp space and refueling and cargo sites to support their operations.

Wilson recognizes the challenges in preparing for the next wave of incoming troops. "We understand what has to be done," he said. "It adds a new dimension to what we're already doing here, but we will figure it out."

It's not unfamiliar territory for Wilson, who served with the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad in 2003. But even that mission can't hold a candle to the challenges faced in Afghanistan, he said. Iraq had highway networks and a basic infrastructure, albeit crippled at the time. In many cases, Afghanistan lacks both.

If there's one bullet on Wilson's resume that best prepared him for his current challenges, he said, it was his last assignment, with the Alaska Engineering District. There, he worked closely with native tribes in remote villages, just as he's doing now in Afghanistan.

"I probably learned more from working in Alaska that is applicable here than anywhere else," he said. "And it makes me able to ask the questions in advance."

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