Air base expansion plans reflect long-term investment in Afghanistan

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; A06

Three $100 million air base expansions in southern and northern Afghanistan illustrate Pentagon plans to continue building multimillion-dollar facilities in that country to support increased U.S. military operations well into the future.

Despite growing public unhappiness with the Afghan war — and President Obama‘s pledge that he will begin withdrawing troops in July 2011 — many of the installations being built in Afghanistan have extended time horizons. None of the three projects in southern and northern Afghanistan is expected to be completed until the latter half of 2011. All of them are for use by U.S. forces rather than their Afghan counterparts.

Overall, requests for $1.3 billion in additional fiscal 2011 funds for multiyear construction of military facilities in Afghanistan are pending before Congress. The House has approved the money, as has the Senate Appropriations Committee. The full Senate has yet to vote on the measure.

In addition, the United States has already allocated some $5.3 billion to construct facilities for the Afghan army and the national police, with most of the “enduring facilities . . . scheduled for construction over the next three to four years,” according to a Pentagon news release this month.

For example, a $30 million contract was recently awarded to build a regional military training center in Mazar-e Sharif, according to Col. Mike Wehr, engineer director of the combined NATO training mission. That facility, too, will not be completed until late 2011, and then it will be used to train Afghans in various military specialties, including engineering.

“We’re only about 25 percent complete in our construction [for Afghan security forces], and there is quite a bit more to go over the next three years,” Wehr told a defense bloggers roundtable last week. One goal of the NATO transition program is to have Afghans ready to maintain these facilities by 2013, Wehr added.

The three bases being expanded for U.S. use after 2011 reflect the expectation of continued combat operations, but they are just part of a broader expansion of U.S. facilitiesacross the country.

North of Kabul, the Pentagon is planning to build a $100 million area at Shindand Air Base for Special Operations helicopters and unmanned intelligence and surveillance aircraft along with office, ground and maintenance facilities, plus barracks for 60 new personnel, according to a notice posted last week.

“The force increase in Afghanistan will require additional ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and airlift aircraft at the base,” reads Pentagon material sent to Congress to justify the expense. It notes that roughly 800,000 gallons of jet fuel are needed to be stored “in near proximity to planned U.S. air operations at the base.” The cost alone for constructing the temporary storage facility for that fuel and facilities for parking and operation of 14 refueling vehicles is put at $2.5 million.

Another $100 million project is planned for the air field at Camp Dwyer, a Marine base in Helmand province, where expansion is needed to accommodate fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft.

Dwyer’s airfield is described as “a key hub” to support Special Operations Forces operations in southern Afghanistan, according to the congressional presentation. Currently, there is not enough parking and runway space to handle the number of Special Operations aircraft required, it adds.

Contractor proposals were also due last week for a third $100 million project, this one at Mazar-e Sharif, where increased operations and incoming supplies for northern Afghanistan require more taxiways and parking space for both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft plus three or more maintenance hangars.

Part of the expansion is to be able to handle up to six helicopter and two fixed-wing aircraft. According to the material sent to Congress, the two aircraft could be C-5 or equivalent strategic transports “in order to expand major logistical and combat support operations into the region.”