US dug in for long haul in Afghanistan
By Nick Turse
Some go by names steeped in military tradition like Leatherneck and Geronimo.
Many sound fake-tough, like Ramrod, Lightning, Cobra, and Wolverine. Some
display a local flavor, like Orgun-E, Howz-e-Madad, and Kunduz. All, however,
have one thing in common: they are US and allied forward operating bases, also
known as FOBs.
They are part of a base-building surge that has left the countryside of
Afghanistan dotted with military posts, themselves expanding all the time,
despite the drawdown of forces promised by President Barack Obama beginning in
The US military does not count the exact number of FOBs it has built in
Afghanistan, but forward operating bases and other
facilities of similar or smaller size make up the bulk of US outposts there. Of
the hundreds of US bases in the country, according to Gary Younger, a US public
affairs officer with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), 77%
house units of battalion size (approximately 500 to 1,000 troops) or smaller;
20% are occupied by units smaller than a Brigade Combat Team (about 3,000
troops); and 3% are huge bases, occupied by units larger than a Brigade Combat
Team, that generally boast large-scale military command-and-control
capabilities and all the amenities of Anytown, USA. Younger tells TomDispatch
that ISAF does not centrally track its base construction and upgrading work,
nor the money spent on such projects.
However, Major General Kenneth S Dowd - the director of logistics for US
Central Command for three years before leaving the post in June - offered this
partial account of the ongoing Afghan base build-up in the September/October
issue of Army Sustainment, the official logistics journal of the army:
"Military construction projects scheduled for completion over the next 12
months will deliver four new runways, ramp space for 8 C-17 transports, and
parking for 50 helicopters and 24 close air support and 26 intelligence
surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. This represents roughly one-third of
the airfield paving projects currently funded in the Afghanistan theater of
operations. Additional minor construction plans called for the construction of
over 12 new FOBs and expansion of 18 existing FOBs."
If Dowd offered the barest sketch of some of the projects planned or underway,
a TomDispatch analysis of little-noticed US government records and
publications, including US Army and Army Corps of Engineers contracting
documents and construction-bid solicitations issued over the past five months,
fills in the picture. The documents reveal plans for large-scale, expensive
Afghan base expansions of every sort and a military that is expecting to pursue
its building boom without letup well into the future. These facts-on-the-ground
indicate that, whatever timelines for phased withdrawal may be issued in
Washington, the US military is focused on building up, not drawing down, in
Jobs on FOBs
A typical forward operating base set to undergo expansion is FOB Salerno, a
post located near the Afghan city of Khost, not far from the Pakistani border.
According to documents from the US Army Corps of Engineers, plans are in the
works for an expansion of that base's fuel facilities. Estimated to cost $10
million to $25 million, these upgrades will increase fuel storage capacity to
one million gallons to enhance land and air operations, and may not be
completed for a year and a half; that is, until well into 2012.
In June, work was completed on a new, nearly $12 million runway at FOB Shank,
near the city of Puli Alam in Logar province, south of Kabul. The base was
formerly accessible only by road and helicopter, but its new 1.4-mile-long
airstrip can now accommodate large Lockheed C-130 Hercules and Boeing C-17
Globemaster transport aircraft, enabling ever larger numbers of personnel to be
deployed to the site.
Not surprisingly, government documents released in August show that FOB Shank
is also set for a major boost in troop housing. Already home to approximately
4,500 military personnel, it will be adding a new two-story barracks,
constructed of containerized housing units known as "relocatable buildings" or
RLBs, to accommodate 1,100 more troops.
Support facilities, access roads, parking areas, new utilities, and other
infrastructure required to sustain the housing complex will also be installed
for an estimated $5 million to $10 million. In addition, the army Corps of
Engineers just began seeking contractors to add 452,000 square feet (419,000
square meters) of airfield parking space at the base. It's meant for Special
Operations Forces' helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. New aircraft
maintenance facilities and 80,000 square feet more of taxiways will also be
built at the cost of another $10 million to $25 million.
Documents reveal that this sort of expansion is now going on at a remarkably
rapid pace all over the country. For instance, major expansions of
infrastructure to support helicopter operations, including increased apron
space, taxiways, and tarmac for parking, servicing, loading, and unloading are
planned for facilities like FOB Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, FOB Dwyer, a
Marine base in Helmand province, and FOB Sharana, a Paktika province base near
the Pakistani border, where the army also announced plans for the construction
of an ammunition supply facility, with storage space for one million pounds of
munitions, and related infrastructure.
In late August, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post reported that construction
was slated to begin on at least three $100 million base projects, including FOB
Dwyer, that were not "expected to be completed until the latter half of 2011".
In addition to enhancing helicopter operations infrastructure, plans were also
announced for the construction of a new, large-scale wastewater treatment
facility at Dwyer, a project estimated to cost another $10 million to $25
million and, like so much of what is now being built by the US military in the
backlands of Afghanistan, it is not expected to be completed and put fully into
use until well into the second half of 2011, if not later , that is, after
Obama's theoretical due date for beginning to lessen the mission in that
And whenever you stumble on a document indicating that work of a certain sort
is taking place at one FOB, you can be sure that, sooner or later, you will
find similar work at other FOBs. In this case, for example, FOB Frontenac in
Kandahar province and Tarin Kowt, north of Kandahar, are, like Dwyer, slated to
receive new wastewater plants.
Much of this work may sound mundane, but the scale of it isn't. Typical is
another of the bases identified by Pincus, FOB Shindand in western Afghanistan,
which is to receive, among other things, new security fencing, new guard
towers, and new underground electrical lines. And that's just to begin the list
of enhancements at Shindand, including earthen berms for four 200,000-gallon
"expeditionary fuel bladders and a concrete pad suitable for parking and
operating fourteen R-11 refueling vehicles" - tanker trucks with a 6,000-gallon
capacity - as well as new passenger processing and cargo handling facilities
(an $18 million contract) and an expansion of helicopter facilities (another
$25 million to $50 million).
Multiply this, FOB by FOB, the length and breadth of Afghanistan, and you have
a building program fit for a long war.
This building boom has hardly been confined to FOBs. Construction and expansion
work at bases far larger than FOBs, including the mega-bases at Bagram and
Kandahar, is ongoing, often at a startling pace. The army, for example, has
indicated it plans to build a 24,000 square-foot, $10-million
command-and-control facility as well as a "Joint Defense Operations Center"
with supporting amenities - from water storage tanks to outdoor landscaping -
at Bagram Air Base.
At bustling Kandahar air field, the military has offered contracts for a
variety of upgrades, including a $28.5 million deal for the construction of an
outdoor shelter for fighter aircraft, as well as new operations and maintenance
facilities and more apron space, among a host of other improvements.
In June, Noah Shachtman of Wired.com's Danger Room reported on the army's plans
to expand its Special Operations headquarters at Mazar-e-Sharif in northern
Afghanistan and cited documents indicating that construction would include a
"communications building, tactical operations center, training facility,
medical aid station, vehicle maintenance facility ... dining facility, laundry
facility, and a kennel to support working dogs." A contract for that work,
worth $30 million, was awarded at the end of September.
Similarly, according to a recent article in the Marine Corps Times, Camp
Leatherneck, which expanded in late 2009 from a 660-acre (267 hectares)
facility to 1,550 acres, or approximately 2.4 square miles (6.21 square
kilometers), is slated to add three new gyms to the one already there, as well
as a chapel complex with three separate buildings (one big enough to
accommodate up to 200 people), a second mess hall (capable of serving 4,000
marines at a time), a new PX housed in a big-top tent, with 10,000 square feet
of sales space - the current base facility only has 3,000 square feet - and the
installation of a $200 million runway that can accommodate C-5 cargo planes and
747 passenger jets.
Despite a pledge from the Obama administration to begin its troop drawdowns
next July, this ongoing base-construction splurge, when put together with
recent signals from the White House, civilians at the Pentagon, and top
military commanders, including Afghan war chief General David Petraeus,
suggests that the process may be drawn out over many years. During a recent
interview with ABC News senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz,
for instance, Petraeus affirmed the president's July 2011 timeline, but added a
crucial caveat. "It will be a pace that is determined by conditions," he said.
Almost a decade into the Afghan War, he claimed, the US military had "finally
gotten the inputs right in Afghanistan." Raddatz then asked if the
"counter-insurgency clock" had just restarted - if, that is, it could be
another nine or 10 years to achieve success. "Yeah," replied Petraeus,
hastening to add that American soldiers killed there over the previous nine
years had not simply died for nothing. "But it is just at this point that we
feel that we do have the organizations that we learned in Iraq and from history
are necessary for the conduct that this kind of campaign."
The building boom occurring on US bases across Afghanistan and the contracts
for future construction being awarded at the moment seem to confirm that,
whatever the White House has in mind, the military is operating on something
closer to the Petraeus timeline. The new special operations base at
Mazar-e-Sharif, to take but one of many examples, may not be completed and
fully occupied for at least a year and a half. Other construction contracts,
not yet even awarded, are expected to take a year or more to complete. And
military timelines suggest that, if the Pentagon gets its way, American troop
levels may not dip below the numbers present when Obama took office,
approximately 36,000 troops, until 2016 or beyond.
At the moment, the American people are being offered one story about how the
American war in Afghanistan is to proceed, while in Afghanistan their tax
dollars are being invested in another trajectory entirely. The question is: How
permanent are US bases in Afghanistan? And if they are not meant to be used for
a decade or more to come, why is the Pentagon still building as if they were?
Recently, the army sought bids from contractors willing to supply power plants
and supporting fuel systems at forward operating bases in Afghanistan for up to
five years. Power plants, fuel systems, and the bases on which they are being
built are facts on the ground. Such facts carry a weight of their own, and
offer a window into US designs in Afghanistan that may be at least as relevant
as anything Barack Obama or his aides have been saying about draw-downs,
deadlines, or future withdrawal plans.
If you want to ask hard questions about America's Afghan war, start with those
Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning
journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and
regularly at TomDispatch. His latest book,
The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan(Verso Books), which brings
together leading analysts from across the political spectrum, has just been
published. Turse is currently a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe
Institute. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on
Facebook. His website is NickTurse.com.