Building in Afghanistan: From Open Field to Functional Facility
August 27, 2013
KABUL-- Building in Afghanistan is not like building in suburban America. It is not simply a matter of choosing counter tops and carpet over coffee with the general contractor. Transatlantic Afghanistan District is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers primary agent to accomplish the building mission here.
One veteran Transatlantic Division member explained, "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mission in Afghanistan has some of the most challenging dynamics and obstacles of any construction environment across the globe. First finding contractors who can demonstrate the ability to perform work in a contingency conflict zone is difficult. In addition, there is not a skilled workforce readily available in Afghanistan, and the pipeline for materials and supplies is long and difficult to navigate.
Contractors come from across the globe to accept work in Afghanistan and some find the environment more challenging than they imagined and some leave before completing the work they were contracted to perform. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does everything within its authority to hold contractors accountable for the quality and completion of work for which they were contracted. The bottom line is that constructing in Afghanistan is not like constructing anywhere in the USA and the ability to hold contractors fully accountable in a combat zone, in a foreign country, is rather limited. Despite these challenges the program managers, engineers, construction oversight teams, legal advisors and contracting personnel all work together to try to assure the highest quality of product possible."
As the largest public engineering agency in the world, USACE had developed proven processes and principles that enable projects to be completed which will meet the customers' needs. Before exploring the 'how' of mission accomplishment it is important to define the overall mission and why it must succeed.
In Afghanistan USACE designs and constructs projects for Afghan National Security Forces--specifically for the national army and national police. ANSF projects are critical to the nation's infrastructure and position the Afghans to maintain national and public security. And Afghanistan's security contributes to U.S. national security.
In an interview with Fox News, Secretary of State John Kerry said, "We value security and stability in other parts of the world, knowing that failed states are among our greatest security threats, and new partners our greatest assets. The investments we make support our efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism wherever it flourishes. As Senator Lindsay Graham has said, 'it's national security insurance that we're buying.'"
In accordance with USACE's efforts to lay the foundation for increased capacity by strengthening critical infrastructure and building facilities that aid in governance and economic development, TAA constructs projects such as roads, water and power infrastructure and projects to support U.S. forces in the form of airfields, barracks, cargo handling areas, utilities infrastructure, installations, warehouses and medical facilities.
USACE does not determine construction needs or hire construction workers. Instead, USACE translates U.S. Government and Department of Defense requirements into feasible projects and awards construction contracts to contractors and builders that will satisfy the government's needs.
Projects are completed by contractors with oversight by USACE. It is important to note however, other DOD engineering agencies also operate in Afghanistan and may have oversight of projects.
Afghan National Security Forces and Military Construction typically starts with a Letter of Direction from the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A) under the direction of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. CSTC-A sends the Corps of Engineers requirements which include types of facilities and infrastructure needed, building purposes and the specific location for the project.
When USACE is asked to build Afghanistan Sustainable Development Program projects, either battle space owners or the Joint Program Integration Office in Kabul identifies the need and pays for construction.
USACE evaluates customer requests and determines the best solution.
TAA professionals encounter challenges on site that are currently unique to Afghanistan although the Corps has negotiated such obstacles before.
On-site engineers must devise solutions for unexploded ordnance, interested community members, unanticipated engineering challenges and the inevitable language barrier.
Tim Kerr is currently serving here as a project/program manager. He worked in a similar capacity from 2010 to 2011 and has a clear understanding of what it takes to bring a project from field to facility. Kerr specifically recalls one project currently under construction.
"When we got to the site, squatters were present and livestock trails crossed the site. Once land is cleared of un-exploded ordnance and mines, folks fill it up quick to use it here. Contractors must keep a site clear for work to proceed. Common law ownership is prevalent here. This particular site had been used for transit between communities. There was a need for a perimeter wall to keep people off of the site. We were concerned for their safety. Another concern early on was a risk for sniper activity from high vantage points, but much of that threat has dissipated. It's certainly different building here. Children played on a nearby Soviet-era BMP hulk and played soccer in fields surrounding the project site.
"One time I thought we would have trouble on the site. The village elder came to inform us that a site modification had caused water to gather near the village. After we explained our intentions he understood and we had no communication or work problems regarding the village."
"On my first tour we broke down what could have been barriers. We distributed candy to the children nearby. A former commander found out about it and got us some soccer balls to pass out. The village elders watched with suspicion at first, but realized our intentions and allowed it. We didn't feel threatened in any way, shape or form. After we spoke to the senior elders, they accepted us working nearby."
Communication, or building rapport, is only one challenge on an Afghanistan building site. Unexploded ordnance is also a concern as work begins. Finding unexploded ordnance is not the greatest problem.
"Though the site had been cleared, deeply buried unexploded ordnance was found on one site. We called to have it removed and safety sent someone to clear the Soviet-era shell. Before it could be cleared a worker was operating a soil compactor in the vicinity of our find. We ran over and stopped him and verified that the site was clearly marked," Kerr recalled.
"Safety is a big deal. We were constantly reminding workers about things like safety shoes or boots. We may not have the same workers day-to-day. Many would show up wearing sandals. Safety shoes are more valuable than a daily wage with some. Ensuring that employees report to work with personal protective equipment was a challenge. One contractor would collect boots at the end of the day and issue them the next morning to ensure the workers were wearing them. Proper sizes and left or right matched sets were not priorities."
Building in Afghanistan is also unlike the U.S. regarding contracting. USACE Construction contracts require contractors to provide a one year construction warranty period. But according to TAA's contracting chief, Julie Anderson, it is often difficult to get contractors in Afghanistan back to the site when warranty issues arise. Several factors contribute to the problem. Company officials sometimes cannot be located when warranty work is required. Others come from other countries to work and physically leave the region. Additionally, potential security conditions in the areas may hinder return to a site for repairs.
A third challenge here has been Prime and sub-contractor's access to capital during the construction of the project. A Prime contractor's sub may come up short and ask the prime contractor for to provide the materials or cash up front. The issues arise when the Prime contractors do not have the means to satisfy the subcontractor's needs. A cash flow problem at any level can delay project completion.
A final challenge to building in Afghanistan is efficient planning. As in the U.S., holidays must be figured into the construction plan. American end-of-year holidays impact work, however in some parts of Afghanistan the construction season is not year-round, mainly due to weather. The Muslim holidays of Ramadan (which includes a month-long fast) and Eid al-Fitr (the Festival of Fast-Breaking) which concludes Ramadan, fall within optimal construction weeks. TAA members, contractors and customers must account for this down time as they set milestones.
TAA professionals regularly find solutions to problems unique to Afghanistan. Despite the challenges, Col. Richard Heitkamp, officer-in-charge of Kabul Area Office explains the encouraging signs he sees.
"As engineers we take for granted the methods and techniques we see from American contractors.
Afghan engineers are every bit as good, if not better, in some areas. Here they have broadened their concrete ability, such a chair placement in rebar, and finish work. Afghan contractors possess an expertise using materials native to this part of the world."
Another encouraging development is the work of Afghan quality assurance professionals.
Heitkamp said, "Some Afghan engineers and quality assurance representatives are new out of school, and they have improved their scheduling ability, quality management and safety practices. While working with us they have quickly learned and applied Corps standards and understand scheduling, management and quality. They have improved greatly based on what I've seen in my time here compared to a few years ago. Take arch-span buildings for example. Five or 10 years ago they couldn't build one. Now they can."
Afghan QA representatives also apply a keen eye to completed work.
"One of the challenges we see is the need to rework when we find construction that is not up to standard. Our Afghan quality assurance professionals are finding these instances and working with us to identify solutions," Heitkamp concluded.
"It has been a great first month and I have discovered first that the construction mission in Afghanistan is extremely difficult due to many factors. I have also found we have an extraordinary workforce that is dedicated to delivering the Afghan National Security Forces program. In the end that is how the Corps will be remembered: whether or not we delivered. I am confident that this district with the support of many others back in the states, will get the mission done," commented Col. Michael J. Price, TAA commander.
TAA's ability to negotiate obstacles will ultimately be proven.
"When all of the construction that USACE is responsible for is completed, there will be over 717 project facilities to support the 350,000 Afghan National Army and National Police personnel. This effort will help reinforce their capability to provide security and stability throughout Afghanistan," said USACE Transatlantic Division commander Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre recently.