Afghanistan Engineer District

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Colonel O'Dowd reflects on Afghan mission

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
Afghanistan Engineer District
Contact: LaShawn Sykes : 070-18-8397,
U.S. Commercial: (540) 542-1585


KABUL, Afghanistan – Col. John B. O’Dowd relinquished his command of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Afghanistan Engineer District, but the contributions he’s made will remain here for future generations to come.

After enduring 25 years of war, civil unrest, economic chaos, security hazards, and lack of infrastructure, transportation and communication, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is beginning to show real signs of life due, in large part, to the concerted efforts being made by the Corps of Engineers, the US Agency for International Development and other members of the international community.

Under O’Dowd’s yearlong watch, as the commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District and the Director of the Engineer Division for Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, he supported the command’s efforts to win the war on terror by overseeing a comprehensive infrastructure construction program for the recruiting and training of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which the Corps of Engineers began building in 2003.

Afghan National Army

For the first time, in Afghanistan’s history, there is a presence of a newly unified emerging Afghan National Army growing across the country.

The US Army Corps of Engineers' Afghanistan Engineer District's Project Manager Shannon Swartz looks on as Corps representative Gary Headley explains the Chil Dukhtaran Refugee Housing Project, which is outside of Kabul city limits. The purpose of the project is to get refugees out of tents and into housing. To qualify for a home Afghans must be native to Kabul. Working with the Corps to finalize the contract before construction begins is the US Agency of International Development and the Ministry of Urban Housing and Development. (AED Photo)

As the ANA stood up its four regional commands – Gardez, Herat, Kandahar and Mazar i Sharif – the district began construction on regional command headquarters, which are basically cantonment areas for 3,500 soldiers.

“We had a ceremony at each of those sites and a flag went up, which symbolized for the people that there was a national army going to operate in their region, and we were going to begin building facilities there,” O’Dowd said.

“It’s pretty remarkable that we have been able to put four brigade garrisons on the ground in less than 12 months. A year ago, I stood at each of those sites looking out into blank pieces of desert that you wouldn’t dare walk on because the areas had not been de-mined yet.

“Today, not only can you walk on each of those sites, but you now have a 1 ½ kilometer by 1 ½ kilometer camp with about 105 buildings at each site. And when you’re flying in from 10 to 15 kilometers away you can see those bases clearly, which is really neat.”

Although it still will be a few months before the sites are completely finished, when they are completed, each will have water, waste water, power plant, maintenance facilities, supply facilities, barracks and headquarters’ buildings.

The good news continues because another camp is being constructed at Qalat, one awarded at Khost and, in the next several weeks, there will be one awarded at Lashkar Gah, which means there will be seven brigade garrisons under construction at one time.

According to the district’s Contract Specialist Ann Mays, contracts are awarded here using several different contracting vehicles.

In place are 10 Indefinite delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts, known locally as the “BIG TEN”, and five IDIQ contracts, known locally as the “Afghan Five” that are both awarded to several contractors.

New requirements are competed through the Request for Proposal (RFP) process among the various contractors holding the base IDIQ contracts.

Proposals are received and evaluated by a Source Selection Board and information from the board is presented to the contracting officer for award.

Project Engineer Lew Riggins witnesses coring during construction of Echo Taxiway at Bargram, Afghanistan in June. (Photo by Project Engineer Chad Gartrell, from Engineer Research and Development, Vicksburg, Miss.)

All contracts awarded emphasize the incorporation of the Afghan workforce at all levels of the contract work as it is performed at the different sites throughout Afghanistan.

With three more brigades to construct, the construction will provide additional training for the skilled laborers and help reduce Afghanistan’s unemployment rates.

Afghan workers

When you look across the Corps’ programs, you’ll notice that about 70 percent (7,000) of its workers today are Afghans who are filling a variety of skilled positions such as electricians, plumbers, masons and carpenters.

And recently three female Afghan engineer technicians graduated from Kabul University and are working for one of the Corps’ Afghan contractors.

A year ago, the scene here was much different.

Although there were many Afghan laborers, you could not find any electricians or plumbers, said O’Dowd.

“While there were some technically competent engineers who were mostly trained outside of Afghanistan, they didn’t understand the planning and programming of funds for large construction projects.”

The Corps is trying to grow Afghan firms by having major US companies link up with small Afghan companies using the Afghans as sub contractors to help them establish the kind of business operations that will enable the Afghans to compete on contracts as prime contractors.

With the ANA projects almost operational, the next step is to get the Afghan National Police (ANP) Program moving in the right direction. The district is now constructing 18 different police facilities for the national police, border police and highway police.

In addition to working with ANA and the ANP, the district has also been interacting with several Afghanistan ministries.

Within the infrastructure office of the Ministry of Defense (MOD), the district has a full time mentor who is working with the Afghans to stand up their organization and accomplish the long term maintenance of MOD facilities. The district also helps mentor the Ministry of Public of Works in planning transportation projects. The Corps provides technical assistance to the U.S. Agency for International Development for their important infrastructure program which includes roads, schools, clinics, power and water. A number of other Corps employees live and work with USAID on these important programs.

“When I look at Afghanistan, all that we have accomplished in less than two years since standing up the district, of all of the places I’ve been in my time in the military, I think we’ve done a better job on the interagency and international piece here than ever before,” said O’Dowd.

“When I served in Haiti, the Corps of Engineers and USAID didn’t even communicate with one another.”

“In this environment, you need the skill sets each agency brings to the table. When you combine the social programs that USAID can do – institution building and capacity building – with the engineering and technical skills of the Corps of Engineers, it’s a really powerful developmental tool and it is a particularly useful tool for a country like Afghanistan that has seen a man-made disaster.”

As previous commander of the New York District, (2001-2004) O’Dowd, who’s office stood just six blocks away from the World Trade Center, witnessed, firsthand, the September 11th attacks on New York City.

“Having worked round the clock on the recovery efforts has helped me tremendously in my assignment here,” said O’Dowd.

“Seeing how FEMA was able to accomplish the cleanup in New York, seeing how the Corps responded and how construction contracts operate, I really wanted to come to Afghanistan.

“The only difference is the pace at which we are building things in Afghanistan. It is much quicker then I experienced in New York – it’s at light speed.”

In a joint venture, the US Army Corps of Engineers, US Agency for International Development and other members of the international community help with rescue and debris removal when a hospital building under construction in the Afghan capital, Kabul, collapsed July 2004. (AED Photo)

With Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan engaging the international community here, the Corps meets regularly with representatives from other governments and international agencies to determine how they are going to reach their common goal of stabilizing and securing Afghanistan, he said.

“At last year’s elections, it was amazing the way the UN, CFC-A, and other international agencies in Afghanistan sat down and worked with the government of Afghanistan to conduct a successful presidential election.

“By far, this was the biggest highlight for me, watching Afghans come out and vote for the first time in their history and seeing international, interagency cooperation at work”.

“I look forward to going to my new assignment and getting the opportunity to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned here because at the end of the day we are all in it for the same reason.”

O’Dowd will serve as the chief of staff of the United States Military Mission for the United Nations in New York.

Although O’Dowd accomplished much in a year, he leaves behind a few items in his inbox for the new commander.

In a joint venture with Norway, the Corps of Engineers is building a bridge between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Having the bridge will be instrumental for commerce coming in and out of the country.

After being delayed for 10 months due to reprogramming, the runway at Bargram is now under construction. “We would have liked to have nailed this one but it will not be completed until next March,” said O’Dowd.

A 100 megawatt power plant the Corps is working on with USAID is in its infancy.

Working with the different ministries of Refugee Affairs, USAID and the Municipality of Kabul, the Corps has a refugee housing construction underway.

Buried at the bottom of O’Dowd’s inbox are two notes: The first is to Col. Christopher J. Toomey who assumes command of the district from O’Dowd.

“You’ve got some really talented skilled people here that will make your job really easy,” O’Dowd said. ”Just give them an environment where they are free to do what they already know how to do and very little guidance and the Corps folks here will get the job done for you.”

The last note is to all of the folks that he leaves behind. “I just want to say goodbye and thank you for everything that you’ve done. I can’t think of anyone that I haven’t been satisfied with the way in which they’ve performed. I sincerely appreciate all of you for making my job easy.”


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