FORWARD OPERATING BASE FINLEY-SHIELDS, Afghanistan: Nangarhar Province is seeing a rush of construction projects due in large part to the vision and planning of an Air Force civil engineer team here.
As part of the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team, civil engineers work with fellow PRT members, including civil affairs teams, to address the needs of a specific district or village and nail down the particulars necessary to get a project approved and built.
The civil affairs team works with local leaders on determining the specific needs of an area. The province, approximately 7,700 square miles with 22 recognized districts, is considered the agricultural center of the country.
“The Afghans are encouraged to route their requests through their local governments for consideration,” said 1st Lt. Stephen Klenke, the PRT’s project purchasing officer deployed from the 21st Civil Engineer Squadron at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. “Then the Afghan government will go through the requests and prioritize them before submitting them to us.”
By encouraging citizens to submit requests through local Afghan government agencies, the PRT is helping to promote an all-Afghan enterprise and to build trust in their system.
“One of the main reasons for having the requests go through the Afghan government before it reaches us is to build confidence,” Lieutenant Klenke said. “We may help fund the projects, but they have an Afghan face on them – something that usually gives a project more support locally.”
Established in 2003 by the Army, the PRT is made up of active-duty, Guard and Reserve servicemembers as well as members from other U.S. agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S.AID, U.S. Department of State and the U.S Department of Agriculture.
Many of the projects the PRT is currently working on address concerns of inadequate infrastructure throughout Nangarhar. To date, the team has 55 active projects worth $63.4 million with another 60 projects in the queue worth $100.6 million. Currently, the team is working on 15 roads, 33 schools, a two-story women’s resource center as well as surveying and designing a dam in the mountain valleys.
“All of our projects are funded with (Commander’s Emergency Resource Project) money,” the lieutenant added.
The projects go through a vetting process where the designs are approved and then sent out for bidding among the local contractors. The CE team selects the winning bid based on best value. Once selected, the contractor will begin construction with the team conducting quality assessment and quality control checks throughout the different phases of construction.
“When we go out to do our QA/QC checks, I can see problems before they happen,” said Tech. Sgt. Bryan Calaman, Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team engineer. “I’m used to seeing projects built from the ground up, so if I see a potential problem and have it addressed right away, it saves a lot of hassle in the long run and keeps the project on target.”
While the province is in dire need of improved roadways and large-scale infrastructure, it’s not always grand solutions that have the most significant effect on the people in these rural districts.
“The smaller projects have the highest impact,” said Capt. Elisabeth Leon, lead engineer for the Nangarhar Provincial Reconstruction Team. “Projects like wells have the most potential on a microscopic level to help with the most basic needs of a village.”
Some of the challenges the CE team faces deal directly with the terrain.
“Getting materials to the construction site has been a problem,” said Sergeant Calaman, a native of Carlisle, Pa. “In Dari Nor, we’re having trouble getting metal beams out there. And when we’re traveling to a lot of these locations, we’re white-knuckling it all the way because the routes we travel are insane.”
Another challenge the teams face is getting the support of all the people in the area who have stock in the project.
“In a lot of areas, it’s still very tribal,” the sergeant said, a prior RED HORSE civil engineer. “We have land disputes between the elders and the subgovernors, so it takes a certain finesse to get everyone’s thumbprint (an accepted form of approval or signature) before construction can even begin.”
Ensuring the projects reach completion requires the help of a lot of outside assets.
“We have five local national engineers who help us on our projects,” the captain said. “They have an active role in conducting the QA and QC checks which can really benefit having an Afghan out there dealing with an Afghan project. It’s just one step closer to turning the whole process over to them.”
Likewise, when the CE team needs to survey the construction sites themselves, they rely on the different agencies of Forward Operating Base Finley-Shields.
“This isn’t just an Air Force mission, it’s a joint effort with the Army and local nationals helping us,” Captain Leon said. “We need the security forces out there keeping us safe and doctors to keep us healthy so we can complete the mission. We’re only successful through the help of everyone else.”
One benchmark the PRT hopes to reach is to help the Afghan people become more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside help. If the Afghans can build a strong foundation to support themselves, then hopefully support for insurgency will not take root or continue in the region.
“If we can help improve the standards of living and get the people the most basic of needs, then maybe they will not play into the insurgency in a more immediate way,” Captain Leon said. “If we can help do that, then anything is possible here.”