| ||Parting Gift for Afghans: A Military McMansion|
The Wall Street Journal
By Michael M. Phillips
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Three Years Late, an $89 Million Base for Afghan Troops May Be Too Complicated for Them to Operate; 'Deep Fryers? Really?'
ZARGHUN SHAHR - In a dusty valley here, construction workers are racing to finish a fiber-optic-equipped military base for a wood-burning army.
The $89 million U.S.-funded forward operating base, called Super FOB, is being built to house the Afghan army brigade that patrols Paktika province, along the contentious Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
But Super FOB is being completed, and due to be expanded, after the U.S. and its allies have decided the Afghan security forces should be about a third smaller than envisioned when the base was conceived by U.S. and Afghan strategists.
The base, already more than three years behind schedule, is so elaborate it will require fuel and technical skills that many U.S. officers doubt the Afghan army will possess once American troops withdraw.
It is also being built to American specifications, with a huge, propane-powered kitchen whose stoves the Afghans say they won't use. Instead, they are getting wood stoves designed for their tastes.
"Deep fryers? Really?" said Lt. Col. Rafael Paredes, deputy commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, which inherited the five-year-old project from previous U.S. units. "The intention is good," he added. But the U.S.-led coalition "could have done the thing better."
The U.S. has funded dozens of bases for Afghan army units. The bill has come to $6.7 billion in projects completed, under way or planned since fiscal 2005.
Col. Edward Bohnemann, commander of the 172nd Infantry Brigade, tried last summer to kill a plan to spend an additional $43 million to expand the capacity of the 300-acre Super FOB to house two more Afghan battalions, according to his spokesman. The troops would be better positioned elsewhere, Col. Bohnemann argued, according to his spokesman.
His entreaties went nowhere.
Super FOB will be finished in June, according to a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is in charge of the U.S.-funded base-building operation. The expansion project will be completed next spring, and is now expected to cost $25 million, bringing the total base cost to roughly $114 million, the spokesman said.
"Super FOB is no more unique" than any of the other 16 brigade bases now in various stages of construction, said Lt. Cmdr. Robert Wadsworth, a NATO engineering officer. Six corps-size bases are being set up, each with a $300 million to $350 million price tag.
Super FOB was conceived and contracted in the early stages of the decade-old war, when NATO envisioned an Afghan army based in garrisons built to Western standards.
In 2009, when Super FOB was supposed to be completed, the coalition lowered its ambitions for future bases to "austere standards" that meet the needs and abilities of Afghan soldiers, according to a NATO report. The new standards include using local materials and construction equipment, as well as wood-burning stoves.
Super FOB, however, was already under way.
The Afghans plan to move in about 2,000 men, about half of the base's pre-expansion capacity, said Afghan Brig. Gen. Zemaray Khan, commander of the 2nd Brigade, 203rd Corps.
Jocelyne Nassar, chief administrative officer of Nassar Group International, the Lebanese contractor building the base, blamed the three-year delay in completing Super FOB on logistical, political, weather and security issues.
Shipping containers filled with roofing and other material are stuck in Pakistan, according to officials familiar with the project, hampered by Islamabad's decision late last year to shut down U.S. supply routes.
In a written response to questions about the delays, Ms. Nassar said, "The project has been the target of many attacks both physically on the ground/roads and mentally through enormous pressure applied on NGI's management team by individuals or organizations hoping to either interrupt the works of this strategic project, or blackmail the owners in a country where this practice is unfortunately common." She didn't identify those individuals or organizations.
NGI has installed generators the Afghans seem unlikely to be able to maintain, fueled with 250,000-gallon diesel tanks the Afghans seem unlikely to have the fuel to fill because of lack of money and logistics.
"They'll use all of their fuel just heating the place" instead of fueling their vehicles, predicts a U.S. officer. "They won't be able to patrol."
At full capacity, the generators would create 33% more power than the base consumes, according to U.S. estimates.
The base contains 122 buildings, many with lowered ceilings that absorb sound, terrazzo floors and forced-air heating and cooling. Fiber-optic Internet service is on its way. The hand-built stone wall surrounding the base cost $2.5 million.
There is a wastewater plant, a soccer field with bleachers, an underground sewer system and a fire station. The kitchen has separate fish-prep, chicken-prep and beef-prep areas. It also has deep fryers, a salad room and sneeze-guarded, stainless-steel service lines.
Afghan military cooks traditionally do their food preparation on the floor, and prefer to make large pots of rice and meat stew. When Afghan commanders inspected construction recently, they complained that the U.S.-supplied propane stoves are too small to hold such large pots. Now the contractor is installing a kitchen annex with 10 wood-burning stoves set into the ground that Afghan cooks can stand on as they stir.
"We require a different way of cooking," Gen. Zemaray says. He predicts the Defense Ministry will issue enough diesel fuel to run Super FOB's generators, and says he has asked Kabul to send him a 71-man technical team able to maintain the sewage-treatment facility, power grid and other advanced systems. NATO, meanwhile, is training Afghan technicians to maintain the new bases.
The Afghans and Americans agree the Afghan army will need a base in Paktika to stop the flow of insurgents. The U.S. has already begun scaling back its own bases in the province, even bulldozing some outposts.
Maj. Gen. Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said the Afghan army should have the capability to supply bases such as Super FOB after the U.S. coalition hands over security responsibilities. "By 2014, we expect that the Afghan army should be ready to supply and do everything they were doing, and be independent," he said.
The latest Super FOB dispute came when the Afghans demanded a 2,000-square-meter, or about 22,000-square-feet, mosque, built by Afghans. The Lebanese contractor and the Americans were reluctant to agree, worried about security and liability issues that might arise from allowing outside workers onto the unfinished base. But in the aftermath of the recent burning of Qurans by U.S. troops, which prompted riots around Afghanistan, U.S. commanders didn't want to be misinterpreted as forbidding a mosque on an Afghan base. They relented and negotiated an arrangement that would allow the mosque workers onto a secured part of the base. —Maria Abi-Habib and Nathan Hodge contributed to this article.
Write to Michael M. Phillips at email@example.com