This article first appeared in the 2014-2015 Edition of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces magazine. Since its publication, the White House has extended the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan into 2015.
President Barack Obama has decided to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of combat forces in December of this year. Yet the USACE mission will continue the dynamic transformation process that has been a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regional operations hallmark for more than a decade.
Project growth in Afghanistan has driven a considerable amount of that transformation.
“We’re doing about $100 million worth of placement a month, which is more than some districts in the Corps do in an entire year. With a very small workforce and the right number of people, we are turning over an average of one project every one-and-a-half days. And a lot of that is based on the great work our predecessors did over the last couple of years.”
“The mission for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan started back in 2002 with a few people doing assessments,” said Col. Michael Price, current USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District (TAA) commander. “Over time, it’s grown to a program of approximately 1,000 projects with a total value of $10.9 billion dollars.”
Price currently commands the TAA, which initially “stood up” in the middle of the last decade as the Afghanistan Engineer District. Until July 2009, it reported directly to USACE Headquarters when mission growth mandated creating two districts – Afghanistan Engineer District-North and Afghanistan Engineer District-South – under a newly formed Transatlantic Division (TAD). The two-district structure remained until July 2013, and then folded back into a single district: TAA.
The higher division level reflects TAA’s growth and transformation. According to Maj. Gen. Michael R. Eyre, former commander of TAD, USACE activated the new division on Sept. 29, 2009, from its predecessor, the Gulf Region Division, which was subsequently inactivated on Oct. 23, 2009.
“At that point, there were five districts – four contingency districts and the Middle East District that TAD accepted responsibility for,” he explained. “They had two contingency districts in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. The fifth district, the Middle East District, is headquartered in Winchester, Va., which has area resident and project offices throughout the Central Command [CENTCOM] area of responsibility [AOR], throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The offices are based on work requirements, but right now the Middle East District is represented in 14 of the 20 countries in CENTCOM’s AOR.”
Outlining TAD’s unique character, Eyre described it as “the only U.S. Army Corps of Engineers division that has a direct relationship with a combatant command. In this case, it is Central Command. So we are identified as the lead construction agent for Central Command throughout the 20 countries in their AOR.
“Additionally, unlike some of the other divisions that have a mix of military missions and civil works, we are primarily focused on the military aspect,” he added. “We have different types of funding sources which support military missions throughout the CENTCOM AOR.”
Eyre differentiated between the USACE situation in Afghanistan and earlier experiences in Iraq, observing, “In Afghanistan, much of our work is really supporting the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF]: the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. It’s designed to provide them with infrastructure – housing, headquarters, billeting, and dining facilities – so that they have the necessary facilities to conduct training, prepare for missions, ultimately provide for a secure and stable Afghanistan.”
Eyre compared the ANSF focus in Afghanistan to the previous USACE mission in Iraq, explaining, “In Iraq, while we did a lot of work for military construction, supporting U.S. and coalition forces and construction for the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, a lot of our work was also for the people of Iraq. We also built schools, medical clinics, hospitals, and power.”
ANSF, however, is not the sole focus of TAA military construction activities. Dozens of other projects in Afghanistan are directed toward the support of U.S. forces.
“Military construction is just one of the programs the Corps is overseeing in Afghanistan,” Eyre continued, pointing to other major USACE programs such as the Afghanistan Infrastructure Fund (AIF). AIF includes four key projects: the Kajaki and Dahla dams; and both the Southeast and Northeast Power systems.
Moreover, reflective of some similar efforts conducted in Iraq, TAA representatives noted that USACE also oversees a variety of smaller projects in Afghanistan under the Commander’s Emergency Response Program.
While the current focus remains on completing existing projects by the end of this year, some of the larger project schedules extend into 2015 and beyond.
Asked about some of the differences between his district and the rest of USACE, Price characterized his district as “a pick-up team,” adding, “Every person here has volunteered to deploy and be part of the district, and we are made up from just about every district in the Corps. It’s a continual rotation of very qualified people successfully executing a very complex mission.”
Michael Darrow, TAA’s deputy programs and project manager, quantified an apparent acceleration of that mission success by highlighting the delivery of 161 projects between October 2013 and April 2014.
“It illustrates how we have the right group of people here in the district,” Darrow said. “We’re doing about $100 million worth of placement a month, which is more than some districts in the Corps do in an entire year. With a very small workforce and the right number of people, we are turning over an average of one project every one-and-a-half days. And a lot of that is based on the great work our predecessors did over the last couple of years.”