Page 1 of 2 Pentagon starts an Afghan building boom
By Nick Turse
In recent weeks, President Barack Obama has been contemplating the future of
United States military operations in Afghanistan. He has also been touting the
effects of his policies at home, reporting that this year's Recovery Act not
only saved jobs but also was "the largest investment in infrastructure since
[president Dwight] Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the
1950s". At the same time, another much less publicized US-taxpayer-funded
infrastructure boom has been underway. This one in Afghanistan.
While Washington has put modest funding into civilian projects in Afghanistan
this year - ranging from small-scale power plants, to "public latrines", to a
meat market - the real construction boom is
military in nature. The Pentagon has been funneling stimulus-sized sums of
money to defense contractors to markedly boost its military infrastructure in
In fiscal year 2009, for example, the civilian US Agency for International
Development awarded US$20 million in contracts for work in Afghanistan, while
the US Army alone awarded $2.2 billion - $834 million of it for construction
projects. According to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the Pentagon has
spent "roughly $2.7 billion on construction over the past three fiscal years"
in that country and, "if its request is approved as part of the fiscal 2010
defense appropriations bill, it would spend another $1.3 billion on more than
100 projects at 40 sites across the country, according to a Senate report on
Bogged down at Bagram
Nowhere has the building boom been more apparent than Bagram Air Base, a key
military site used by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in
the 1980s. In its American incarnation, the base has significantly expanded
from its old Soviet days and, in just the last two years, the population of the
more than 5,000-acre (2,023-hectare) compound has doubled to 20,000 troops, in
addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors.
To keep up with its exponential growth rate, more than $200 million in
construction projects are planned or in progress at this moment on just the air
force section of the base. "Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the
dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the
rocky earth," Chuck Crumbo of The State reported recently. "Hundreds of
laborers slap mortar onto bricks as they build barracks and offices. Four
concrete plants on the base have operated around the clock for 18 months to
keep up with the construction needs."
The base already boasts fast-food favorites Burger King, a combination Pizza
Hut/Bojangles, and Popeyes as well as a day spa and shops selling jewelry, cell
phones and, of course, Afghan rugs. In the near future, notes Pincus, "The
military is planning to build a $30 million passenger terminal and adjacent
cargo facility to handle the flow of troops, many of whom arrive at the base
north of Kabul before moving on to other sites." In addition, according to the
Associated Press, the base command is "acquiring more land next year on the
east side to expand" even further.
To handle the influx of troops already being dispatched by the Obama
administration (with more expected once the president decides on his long-term
war plans) "new dormitories" are going up at Bagram, according to David Axe of
the Washington Times. The base's population will also increase in the near
future, thanks to a project-in-progress recently profiled in The Freedom
Builder, an Army Corps of Engineers publication: the MILCON Bagram Theatre
Internment Facility (TIF) currently being built at a cost of $60 million by a
team of more than 1,000 Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Afghans.
When completed, it will consist of 19 buildings and 16 guard towers designed to
hold more than 1,000 detainees on the sprawling base, which has long been
notorious for the torture and even murder of prisoners within its confines.
While the United States officially insists that it is not setting up permanent
bases in Afghanistan, the scale and permanency of the construction underway at
Bagram seems to suggest, at the least, a very long stay. According to published
reports, the new terminal facilities for the complex aren't even slated to be
operational until 2011.
One of the private companies involved in hardening and building up Bagram's
facilities is Contrack International, an international engineering and
construction firm which, according to US government records, received more than
$120 million in contracts in 2009 for work in Afghanistan. According to
Contrack's website, it is, among other things, currently designing and
constructing a new "entry control point" - a fortified entrance - as well as a
new "ammunition supply point" facility at the base.
It is also responsible for "the design and construction of taxiways and aprons;
airfield lighting and navigation aid improvements; and new apron construction"
for the base's massive and expanding air operations infrastructure. The
building boom at Bagram (which has received at least a modest amount of
attention in the American mainstream press) is, however, just a fraction of the
story of the way the US military - and Contrack International - are digging in
Rave reviews for Kandahar
In March, according to Pentagon documents, Contrack was awarded a $23 million
contract for "the design and construction of [an] Intelligence, Surveillance
and Reconnaissance ramp, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan". Last year, Pincus
reported in the Washington Post that a planned expansion at the airfield, also
once used by the Soviets and now a major US and North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) base, was to accommodate aircraft working for a Task Force
ODIN - an Afghanistan-based version of the army unit which used drones and
helicopters to target insurgents planting improvised explosive devices in Iraq.
Today, Task Force ODIN-Afghanistan - the acronym stands for "observe, detect,
identify and neutralize", with a nod to the chief Norse god - is up and
running, and still reportedly piloted out of "Bagram in one of two small,
nondescript ground control stations". Whether ODIN aircraft are also operating
out of Kandahar Airfield is, like so much information about the US military in
Afghanistan, unclear. Certainly, though, many more NATO and US aircraft will be
flying out of the base once Contrack, as it notes on its website, completes its
"design and construction of replacement runways with asphalt and touch down
areas with concrete pavement" and "rehabilitation of six existing taxiways,"
among other projects.
Contrack's Kandahar contract is set to be fulfilled by late December, but, like
Bagram, the base already gives every appearance of permanence. "It's one of the
busiest single runways in the world," Captain Max Hanlin from the 2nd US Army
Division's 5th Stryker Brigade recently told Agence France-Presse.
Originally built to house 12,000 troops, Kandahar Air Base now supports 30,000
or more NATO and US personnel. Some do battle in the inhospitable terrain of
the surrounding region, while others have never been outside the wire and wile
away their time in the base's cafes and small shops (where troops reportedly
can buy, among other items, belly dancer costumes), party in the "Dutch
corner", play roller hockey in the base's central square, or dance the night
away at a Saturday rave. "They are shaking glowsticks as if they have no
concept of the mines and the war outside," said one US officer, watching troops
on the dance floor.
In recent days, US forces announced a decrease in recreational perks and an
imposition of more austere circumstances - salsa and karaoke nights have
already been cut at Kandahar - prompting worries by NATO allies that their
recreational facilities will be overrun by entertainment-starved US troops.
A mob of FOBs
It seems that no one outside the Pentagon knows just exactly how many US camps,
Forward Operating bases (FOBs), combat outposts, patrol bases and other
fortified sites the US military is currently using or constructing in
Afghanistan. And while the Americans have recently abandoned a few of their
installations, effectively ceding the northeastern province of Nuristan to
Taliban forces, elsewhere a base-building boom has been underway.
In April, Contrack was awarded another $28 million contract for work on
airfields, to be performed at unspecified sites in Afghanistan. In June,
Florida-based IAP Worldwide Services was awarded a $21 million contract to
enhance electrical power distribution at the US Marines' still-growing FOB
Leatherneck in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. Scheduled for completion
in June 2010, that project is only part of IAP's work, which has involved
"almost two dozen power plants at US Army bases in Afghanistan and Iraq" that,
according to the company's promotional literature, its teams have "delivered,
installed, operated and maintained".