Afghanistan Engineer District

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Pushing a Secondary Road through the Heart of a Taliban Stronghold

By Maria Or

(The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in support of USAID provides technical assistance through staffing and reach-back capabilities to stateside centers of expertise.  Among construction of schools, medical clinics, bridges, irrigation systems through power, dam and water studies, the Corps is also involved with aiding in road building projects.)

The seasons are merciless, water is scarce and the closest city is 12 hours away. Yet, under those harsh conditions, the United States Agency for International Development--USAID--and the U.S. Army are building a road from Kandahar to Tirin Kot through an 8,000-foot ridgeline, as if working in what is known as the heartland of the Taliban movement isn’t challenging enough.

In a unique collaboration with the U.S. Army’s combat engineers and the Louis Berger Group contractor, USAID is working to build a valuable trade route and improve security, commerce, access to health care and education to the isolated areas in the Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces.

The reconstructed secondary road when completed will cut the drive time for the148 km thoroughfare from 12 hours to less than three hours.  It is also the first leg of an eventual north-south highway connecting Kandahar and the Ring Road through the central mountain ranges to the gas and oil fields in the Sherbergham region in northern Afghanistan

Road Construction

The project originally started last September with the 528th Engineering Battalion out of Louisiana , who have since redeployed. The work is perhaps one of the most challenging road constructions in Afghanistan .

“Because of high security threats to civilian engineers, it was necessary to bring combat heavy engineers to first lay the alignment and establish the road before civilians can complete it with a surface,” said Ehsan Nawabi, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employee who is USAID’s Program Manager for Roads. 

The first 14 km of the road from Kandahar is near completion, but the challenges for the team are well ahead of them as they reach closer towards the arid mountain passes and the town of Tirin Kot , which is still considered a stronghold of the Taliban.

Under the hot, dry desert summer sun of Afghanistan , which can cause pavement to reach up to 180 degrees in the more southern areas, ensuring there is enough water for construction purposes in such a remote area remains a concern.

Since the region consists of a rocky, steep mountainous, desert terrain where there are no rivers or lakes as water sources, engineers must find water through digging wells to reach deep underground aquifers.

There are currently three existing wells in or near the construction camps.

As winter melts away, time runs short for the team as they are eager to jump beyond their Forward Operating Bases – FOB – Tiger and Ripley. From the bases, combat Soldiers and civilian engineers work the two ends of the road simultaneously.  In order to achieve the greatest progress on the road, especially in the higher elevations, it is necessary to move the camps to follow the work.

“Nothing’s easy, but we do it,” said 864th Engineer Battalion Charlie Company’s 1st Sgt. Mark Baldwin about the complexity of moving the bases. Baldwin is located at FOB Tiger.

Though a young company from Alaska , the 864th Soldiers are serious about accomplishing their mission.

“We want to push this road as far forward towards completion as possible,” said Baldwin . “If we have to push it right through the Taliban’s front yard, backyard, make it the middle of their yard, that’s what we’re going to do.”

FOB Tiger is currently pushing north on the road while FOB Ripley is cutting through the rugged mountain passes near Tirin Kot towards Kandahar .  BSC-C&C, a Louis Berger sub-contractor from India , follows closely behind applying base course and a double bitumen surface treatment – DBST-- to the 8-meter-wide roadway.

Meeting around map.

The original concept for the Kandahar to Tirin Kot road was for USAID to act as a material and equipment supply contract only.  During the startup phase, however, it was found to be more economical, a better allocation of resources and better progress possible for Louis Berger to embed with the U.S. Army and to let supply and place contracts for drainage pipes, base course and DBST.

According to the latest Louis Berger reports, this concept is working well and delivery is expected on time.

The restoration of eight causeways and nine culverts were identified along the first 20 km of the road.  The Army also has completed de-mining that stretch.  The remainder of the road, however, is still mostly under assessment and requires considerable de-mining.

The road, which is the longest of all the USAID secondary road projects, is estimated to be completed by the end of this year and will cost approximately $20 million.

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