TARIN KOWT, Afghanistan — The first wave of construction at more than a half-dozen bases across southern Afghanistan designed to accommodate the Obama administration’s buildup of U.S. forces in the region will be finished by the end of July, according to senior U.S. officers involved in the effort.
More than 2,700 civilian contractors and 2,100 Army, Navy and Air Force engineers have been working to either expand existing bases or build new ones from scratch at eight locations in Farah, Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, they said.
Work at the eight camps is in various stages of completion, with some locations further along than others. More than 10,000 Marines have already deployed to one of the new bases — Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province — where they kicked off a major offensive July 2 against Taliban insurgents in the heart of Afghanistan’s largest opium-producing region.
Planning for the $500 million construction blitz across the parched deserts of southern Afghanistan began last fall, with construction starting earlier this year, said Army Col. Randy LeCompte, assistant deputy director of logistical civil augmentation program in southern Afghanistan, and Navy Capt. Jeff Borowy, who commands all military engineers in the region.
Troops began moving to the bases in May; bases that are still in the initial phases of construction will be ready to receive forces by the end of July, they said.
The Marine offensive is the first major test for the Obama administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan. The goal of the new approach is to clear rural areas of the Taliban and other militants, hold the line against further incursions and allow the Afghan government to establish a lasting presence where insurgents have previously held sway.
A second major test will come next month as Afghan voters head to the polls in the country’s second presidential election since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.
President Barack Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan earlier this year, most of which are being posted to the south. Most of those troops have already arrived. But two brigades, or about 7,000 troops, have yet to deploy fully.
The 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, from Fort Lewis, Wash., is currently flowing into Kandahar Airfield, the main NATO airbase in southern Afghanistan, but has yet to push out to several bases in eastern Kandahar and Zabul provinces that are currently being expanded.
About 3,500 paratroops from the 4th Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, are supposed to deploy in the coming weeks and take over the training of Afghan police forces in southern and western Afghanistan.
LeCompte and Borowy spoke to Stripes earlier this week during a helicopter tour of several of the new camps in Uruzgan and Zabul provinces. They described a laborious process involving weeks of grading sites, creating earthen security perimeters, building airfields and refueling points, followed by the construction of various structures — plywood buildings, mini trailers for troop housing, mess halls, showers and latrines — just to get ready for "initial occupancy." Wells have to be dug to ensure reliable supplies of water. Further refinements such as gyms, recreation centers and gravel roads will come much later.
"Everything you see here has been either trucked in or flown in," said Col. Paul Bricker, commander of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, whose soldiers and helicopters have been flying around the clock in support of the buildup.
The scale of the undertaking is massive. Military engineers have put up more than 522,000 feet of protective berms alone, and have laid another 1.4 million feet of special mats that are used to create a sturdy base for airfield construction, Borowy said.
"We could run a berm from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, Va.," he said. Engineers have also put down enough of the airfield matting to cover an area two football fields wide, stretching from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Borowy added.
At Tarin Kowt, in Uruzgan province, about 280 soldiers from the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade’s 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion have been working since early June to get their helicopters flying and to finish up their new camp, which sits next to an existing Dutch base and a small special operations compound.
The soldiers have been running 24-hour air operations since mid-June, but are still working to get their camp ready so an additional 100 soldiers can move into place.
"We took everybody from their primary [military occupational specialty], and they became construction workers," Command Sgt. Maj. Wayne Fausz said. "Right now, we’re running 24-hour ops, but we’re still limited on manpower."