The commander of the US led milltary coalition fighting in Afghanistan has said an upcoming offensive in Kandahar will likely take longer than planned. That’s because the first part of the surge – constructing the buildings and security checkpoints and bases from which some of the thousands of new US troops involved in the operation will operate – is still in the works. Ben Gilbert reports. (photo: Ben Gilbert)
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MARCO WERMAN: In Washington today, lawmakers from both parties said they were worried about U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. The concerns were raised at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Pentagon’s head of central command, General David Petraeus, testified before the panel. He told Senators that the going was likely to get harder before it gets easier in Afghanistan. U.S. troops are getting ready to launch a major offensive against the Taliban in Kandahar. One concern is that preparations for the offensive are taking longer than expected. That includes the construction of bases and security check points in the region. Ben Gilbert has more on that from Kandahar.
BEN GILBERT: A year ago Kandahar Airfield was a dusty military base of 10,000 people. Now the base has mushroomed to house 30,000 NATO troops and the contractors and civilians who support them. The population explosion here is part of a build up meant to push the Taliban out of their spiritual heartland, but the Taliban are making clear they’re still around. This rocket attack took place as engineers from the triple seven Air Force engineering squadron were showing me around. No one was hurt in the attack. The triple seven is called “Prime Beef” for Prime Base Engineering Engineer Force. These engineers are master planners for just about every military project in southern Afghanistan. Squadron Engineer Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Anders says they’re the equivalent of city planners.
LT. COL. BRYAN ANDERS: Because we’re basically planning small cities. And figure out what the need for infrastructure, power, lay it down in a way that makes sense and try to hand it off to the engineers to start designing the details of it.
GILBERT: For example, there is the problem of treating the wastewater for the nearly 30,000 people who are stationed here.
PAUL LOHMAN: This is the wastewater treatment plant, AKA the poo pond.
GILBERT: Paul Lohman is the wastewater management expert with the squadron. He points to the aeration valves on the pond’s surface. They resemble fountains, but there is a problem here. The massive influx of soldiers and civilians is stretching the capacity of this waste treatment plant to the breaking point. Lohman picks up a rock and tosses it into the brown water.
LOHMAN: Generally, a well operating pond, throw this out there, and that should be an emerald green. It’s not emerald green, but I have to qualify that in just saying there’s so much dust around here, it’s not too bad although you’re not getting any green.
GILBERT: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Major Toney Riley drives me through the dusty, smelly and traffic filled roads of Kandahar Airfield. Riley says the base wasn’t designed to handle this many people.
MAJOR TONEY RILEY: It’s a disorganized, jumbled mess. Kind of like a stew.
GILBERT: Other engineers are more blunt. They call is a disaster. But Major Riley drives me to an area that seems more orderly.
RILEY: Here’s brigade housing. These are the buildings that we’re building and turning over slowly. It’s a group of 12 buildings, arranged in four groups of three.
GILBERT: Hundreds of what look like trailer homes are stacked in rows. The weird contrast of gleaming new buildings, neatly laid out roundabouts, dust, dump trucks and construction workers is surreal. It’s called South Park because it’s well, on the southern side of the base. It looks like an urban housing project in the desert, but so far the troops seem to like it.
MALE VOICE1: It’s not near as bad as it was in Iraq. Because in Iraq it was just a thin metal wall and these are actually insulated walls. So it actually keeps some of the cold and the heat in, whatever you need it to be. Plus it kind of dampens the sound.
MALE VOICE 2: It’s definitely better than what we had in Iraq, definitely. On the other – - in Afghanistan, because I was up in Gazni and Shirana and Gazni was just a long building with wooden walls. In Shirana they had just finished building brick buildings. It was like eight guys in one room on bunk beds. So these are a lot better.
MALE VOICE 3: So on a scale of like one to ten in Army housing, this is a seven.
GILBERT: The troops gave this housing a grade of seven to nine on a scale of ten. Air conditioning, nearby toilets and showers, and 24 hour electricity count for a lot. Near the runway Navy Seabees are building a headquarters and repair shop for a helicopter unit set to arrive here. Back in New Jersey, builder first class Kenneth Arnold works with live electrical wires for a utility company. He says that’s risky.
KENNETH ARNOLD: At home there’s no room in the bucket to duck and cover. So basically, you know, you’re exposed to the elements and you’re working out there with energized electricity and it’s a lot more dangerous than being at Kandahar Airfield.
GILBERT: And what do you guys do if you’re up here and the sirens go off? Do you hit the deck?
ARNOLD: You got to hit the deck you know? Cover your head and just hope it don’t hit close.
GILBERT: The Seabees have their hands in nearly everything here. They’re helping to move troops out of tents into the ubiquitous plywood bee huts. There are thousands of them. The plan is to give most of the buildings to the Afghans once the Americans leave Afghanistan. But there is one drawback to building so fast. The rush job means the engineers have to assemble the millions of dollars in structures out of plywood and other materials that won’t last more than five years in southern Afghanistan’s dry and dusty conditions. For The World, I’m Ben Gilbert at Kandahar Airfield, southern Afghanistan.
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