Despite the fact that overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have been ongoing for nearly a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) continues its efforts in these theaters with drastically different backdrops. As ground operations continue in both arenas, the two representations illustrate that of one mature theater and one maturing theater. While operations in Iraq are centered on a drawdown in the coming months, Afghanistan represents an area of growth for USACE.
In Iraq, a significant change in the command and control structure took place in the summer of 2009, when the area went from three districts to two. Then in March 2010, the Gulf Region District became the sole district responsible for USACE’s presence in Iraq.
“From a strategic and operational perspective … this consolidation of all in-theater engineer operations was a long time in coming and was perfect with the stand down of the Gulf Region Division to bring that organization and that requirement under one senior engineer, and that just happened to be me,” said Brig. Gen. Kendall Cox, commander of the Transatlantic Division. “It really was something that needed to be done sooner than later, but it’s working out perfect in my opinion.”
Even with these changes, the overall program execution hasn’t changed in Iraq; the major focus is on a continuing effort to close out remaining projects, with an eye toward completion and drawdown.
Cox noted more than $1.8 billion in projects were on the books in October 2009, but the total is now down to about $1 billion.
Not only have the number of projects in Iraq decreased, the focus of and types of projects have changed as well. Cox noted that on his two previous assignments at the brigade level and division level, the focus was on establishing security in the country, helping Iraq establish a government while finding and eliminating or capturing insurgents.
In his past year at the helm, USACE operated in a much more secure environment.
“Iraq is beginning to show capacity in terms of its ability to govern the people, and so our focus has been able to switch to essentially providing them advice and assistance – instead of being the predominant military arm in the country, it’s now by, through, and with the Iraqi security forces,” he said. “We have provided them sufficient training to the point where now combat operations are no longer our responsibility.”
The role has become much more advisory.
“Previously, a lot of our projects came with a very difficult challenge where insurgents were constantly attempting to disrupt our execution efforts,” Cox said. “Sometimes they would intimidate the workforce, literally blow up projects or kill construction managers. That has changed to a point where contractors are now bringing projects to completion and turnover. The contractors now operate because the Iraqi people understand the value and importance of having these projects.”
However, even with the much improved security environment he said challenges remain, particularly because construction capability is somewhat lacking, requiring USACE to build capability while at the same time executing projects.
On the other hand, it is extremely important that the laborers on these projects, as well as the subcontractors, come from the local communities. The residents need work, but Cox said this also is tied directly to security on the ground.
“If you’re bringing people from outside a neighborhood, that neighborhood is feeling slighted. That community is not getting the opportunity to employ the male military-aged individuals and we’ve got to give them the opportunity,” he said. “Sometimes the challenge we face is having a pool of skilled laborers with the skill sets that are needed, while still having a labor force composed of typical blue-collar workers.” He stressed, however, the skilled labor capacity in local markets continues to improve as Iraqis develop increasing capacity.
However, it has not always been as smooth as it is now. Cox noted that early on, USACE had a difficult time understanding what essential services Iraqis had, versus which services they needed.
“They had a pretty good system in place, probably 30 to 40 years ago it was state of the art for the Middle East, but it didn’t necessarily meet American standards. So early on we tried to bring something to this environment we thought would make sense,” Cox said. “We attempted to force essential service capability in an area where that wasn’t what they wanted; it was what we thought we needed.”
But he said that over time, USACE has developed an understanding of what Iraqis need in terms of things like a solid waste management program or a wastewater treatment program, and they’re working more closely with local residents on essential service projects.
“We’re having a much easier time producing and essentially delivering those projects,” he added.
With more than $1.2 billion worth of projects remaining, USACE still has its work cut out, as the security agreement states that the U.S. Department of Defense must not have a presence after Dec. 31, 2011.
“The intent, of course, is doing everything we can to complete our remaining projects as close to June 30, 2011, as possible to allow the last six months for project closeout, making the payments and, of course, drawing down the force structure,” he commented.
Even with the drawdown in Iraq, the potential work and collaboration with Iraq remains. Cox noted an emerging growth in USACE assistance with projects Iraq is interested in completing in the future.
“We already have 28 potential projects, of which 19 of those will definitely require a long-term presence, whether it’s executed directly within the country of Iraq or from outside.
“As for some kind of enduring presence from USACE, I could have an office in downtown Baghdad, tied to the Department of State Office of Security Cooperation, that continues this program,” Cox said. “We’re already working with the Department of State and the government of Iraq to accept these projects and expect to award some of them late this calendar year.”
As USACE operations drawdown – even with the possibility of increased participation and efforts down the road in Iraq – it’s nothing compared to the increase in USACE operations in Afghanistan. As the surge puts an exclamation point on operations for combat troops, it also signals an exponential increase for USACE as well.
According to Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Dorko, USACE deputy commanding general of Military and International Operations, work for the Corps has skyrocketed in Afghanistan from an $800 million workload about two years ago to a $3.5 billion workload in 2010.
For years, USACE has been building Afghan National Army and Police facilities throughout the country, helping establish an infrastructure that has the legs to hold up not only the developing security forces but the country’s other efforts to return to some sort of normalcy in the midst of continued insurgent attacks and an enemy intent on removing U.S. and coalition forces from the country altogether.
Recent Afghanistan developments include the installation of Col. Thomas H. Magness IV as commander of USACE’s Afghanistan North District in Kabul and Col. Anthony C. Funkhouser as commander of Afghanistan South District in Kandahar. Colonel Magness succeeded Col. Michael McCormick, under which the district’s personnel increased from 450 to more than 650. Funkhouser succeeded Col. Kevin J. Wilson, who oversaw the growth of the district to 225 personnel.
As in Iraq, USACE also continues improvement efforts to bring the citizenry of Afghanistan into the fold to give them a stake in their future. In late 2009, the Corps established a new policy to ensure Afghan construction workers employed by Afghan contractors were properly paid.
There has been a problem with contractors often “skimming” wages and the common and corrupt practice of some contractors simply not paying their workers.
As a result, new USACE contracts specify that contractors pay their workers promptly. The move also provides that U.S. officials can verify an individual worker’s pay status to ensure they’re being paid.
But the Afghan theater is much less mature than that of Iraq, and although many might think that the theaters are similar, they’re not. From heightened security threats to cultural differences, Afghanistan is far behind that of Iraq. High illiteracy rates compound these problems even further.
The USACE presence in Iraq, while having the opportunity to participate in future projects, is drawing down drastically. But in Afghanistan, even after nearly a decade of work, it’s a mission that still appears to be in the beginning stages and one that will surely grow and evolve in the coming year.
This article first appeared in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Building Strong®: Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2010-2011 Edition.