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Afghan road-building takes troops into danger

FORWARD OPERATING BASE TIGER, Afghanistan — The road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt snakes its way through Afghanistan’s southern badlands like a desert viper — long, dusty and dangerous.

A small contingent of soldiers, however, has come to tame the snake.

Culled mostly from the Louisiana and New York National Guard, a combat engineer task force has staked out a new bare-bones outpost about an hour north of Kandahar. Afghan crews already have started building the two-lane highway that will mark the first leg out of Kandahar. The Guardsmen will take it the rest of the way.

At places little more than a goat trail, the tire-shredding, bone-jarring 75-mile stretch of road is currently a full day’s marathon in only the most hardy four-wheel drive vehicle.

Ranging over narrow, mile-high mountain passes, through ancient medieval villages and across rocky desert moonscapes covered in inches of thick dust, the road runs through territory that is treacherous in more ways than one.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan three years ago and put Kandahar under siege, most of the Taliban’s top leaders fled to Tarin Kowt.

The remote capital of the Uruzgan province, Tarin Kowt is the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the regime’s founding leader. The village and its surrounding mountains are also among the places U.S. intelligence suspect Osama bin Laden may be hiding.

Harsh frontiers

U.S. military leaders still openly cede the area as a Taliban stronghold. A few hundred National Guard engineers will now build a road straight into the Taliban heartland.

“We’re going through some pretty rough country,” said project manager Capt. Chuck Hudson, from his new command post scratched out of the desert floor earlier this month and dubbed Forward Operating Base Tiger.

With the bulk of the task force coming from the Louisiana National Guard’s 528th Combat Engineer Battalion, FOB Tiger is named in honor of the Louisiana State University mascot.

The Spartan camp offers few comforts: no phones, e-mail or air conditioning, and showers only run when the 100-gallon water tank has been filled.

Although the outpost hasn’t been attacked yet, leaders say it’s only a matter of time.

“We’ll probably jump the FOB six or seven times,” said Hudson of the camp that will follow the construction. And with each jump, they’ll move deeper into Taliban territory.

That’s why combat engineers got this job, Hudson said.

Where civilian aid groups have been putting in most of Afghanistan’s new roads, this is an area few dare tread.

“No one else will do it,” Hudson said.

Officials hope the road will bring new stability to the region.

“How did the Romans tame the empire?” asked Col. Richard Pedersen, commander of the 25th Infantry Division’s 3rd Brigade and Task Force Bronco, which oversees Afghanistan’s southern front.

“Roads.”

Just as those roads allowed quicker supply and reinforcement of legionnaire outposts, they also ushered in improved trade routes. Pedersen said this road should help Afghanistan’s central government extend its influence while offering new economic opportunities for those who live there.

“Roads are the key,” Pedersen said. “And this one is pretty damn important.”

Once completed by the end of next year, assuming the project proceeds as planned, the new highway will cut the drive between the two cities from 12 hours to less than three.

‘Bring ’em on’

Black-clad local Afghan militia forces, a contingent of Humvee-mounted scouts and OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopters from the 25th ID’s 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment have been enlisted to help provide security. The troops say they are prepared for what could be a running gun battle as construction moves north.

“You’re always nervous, any way you look at it,” said Staff Sgt. Paul Vance, a heavy equipment operator. In addition to the lurking Taliban fighters who have been increasingly harassing convoys and patrols in the area, he worried the militia units providing security could just as easily have turned in black Taliban turbans for the black ball caps they now wear.

“You don’t really know where their loyalties are,” he said. Regardless, he added, “the bad guys are out there — somewhere.”

Still, “it’s a job, someone’s gotta do it.”

Others said they’d welcome a fight.

“Bring ’em on,” said task force civil engineer Capt. Stephen Harper, as a team of his surveyors, Cpl. Jarrod McNeal and Staff Sgt. James Dearman, plot out the first stretch of highway in withering, early-morning heat last week.

“We can take whatever they want to try and dish out,” he said.

Two-front war

The real fight, said Harper, a Rockwell, Texas, construction manager in civilian life, will be one of logistics.

“Our single biggest challenge is going to be water,” he said. “You can’t build a road without water, lots of water.”

It can be hard to find during southern Afghanistan’s blistering summer months where temperatures routinely top 100 degrees.

For a project this size, crews need to spray 40,000 gallons of water a day to allow base materials to compact properly under heavy, earth-rattling rollers.

Planners had thought a reservoir from a nearby dam would provide an ample supply. But that was before the summer drought drained most of it.

While teams are exploring ways to tap what’s left without bogging tankers down in the mudflats, Afghan drillers have been contracted to try and bore into underground aquifers.

Meanwhile, the Guardsmen are battling on a second logistics front.

“Our equipment has been here since May 2002,” Harper said. “And most of it was antiquated before it ever got here.” He knows because he brought over most of it during his first deployment to Afghanistan.

The 80 bulldozers, scrapers, graders, dump trucks and other heavy equipment critical for project “have been eaten up over here.”

Parts, he said, can take weeks to arrive. “And if that’s for a piece of prime equipment, that’s a long time to wait,” he said.

“Tires are becoming a huge deal,” he added. No fewer than five tires blew out in a single day of construction last week.

“We’ll solve these problems,” brigade commander Pedersen told the engineers during a visit to the construction site last week.

The road will go through, he promised. The viper will be tamed.


Planting a message to the Taliban

FORWARD OPERATING BASE TIGER, Afghanistan — On Sept. 11, 2001, Sgt. 1st Class Armando Lopez led a small contingent of New York National Guardsmen into Manhattan’s ground zero within hours of the attack.

To this day, the New York City native and volunteer firefighter carries pictures of three friends who died in the carnage.

“Never in a million years,” Lopez said, did he imagine he’d one day find himself helping build a road from the city where Osama bin Laden likely hatched his plans to the village where he may now be hiding.

Part of a new combat engineer task force, the 204th Combat Engineer New York National Guardsmen are helping put down a new two-lane road from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt, a super highway by Afghanistan standards through the heartland of the Taliban movement.

“It feels a little like we were meant to come here,” Lopez said. “They wanted to get rid of us, but now we’re here to get rid of them.”

To make that plain, Lopez planted a U.S. flag atop a machine gun bunker at their austere construction camp with the names of the nearly 3,000 victims of Sept. 11 written into the red stripes of the American banner.

“The flag is there not to say ‘hello,’ ” Lopez said, “but to say ‘goodbye’ to the Taliban.”

Sgt. Ken Rose, who pulled security around the Twin Towers rubble, said the whole experience is surreal.

“It’s definitely weird,” said the truck driver from Pennsylvania, leaning into the shady side his big rig water truck. “This is the last thing I ever expected to be doing. I never thought I’d be here, much less building a road.”

For Staff Sgt. Paul Vance, this is his fourth combat stint — the fifth if you count his tour at ground zero.

He just hopes this tour isn’t a repeat of his experience in Somalia where he built miles of new road so aid convoys could push out beyond the main cities. Until, that is, a firefight left scores of U.S. Rangers and Delta commandoes dead and wounded and the United States reversed course and pulled out of the country.

“We just handed those roads over to the warlords,” he said. “It was all for nothing. I just hope we don’t do the same thing here.”

— Jon Anderson

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