News: USACE construction in Afghanistan, a journey with one goal
Story by Alicia Embrey
KABUL, Afghanistan - The ABA-USACE 2014 Business Opportunities Conference, hosted by the Afghanistan Builders Association, was held March 25 in Kabul with more than 100 Afghanistan construction firms and Afghan Ministry dignitaries. Col. Michael Price, commander of Transatlantic Afghanistan District, opened the event by describing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ (USACE) construction journey in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan and the United States, through the Corps of Engineers and the Afghan construction industry, began a journey that had one goal -- to ensure that Afghanistan remains a strong and proud country,” he said.
The most essential element to improve the quality of life and ensure the future security of Afghanistan is capacity building. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is absolutely dedicated to making Afghanistan a better place,” Price said. “One way to achieve this is through a quality infrastructure program. Nothing inspires progress more than an active construction program.”
The USACE construction journey started in 2003, when USACE began partnering with the interim government of Afghanistan to plan and execute infrastructure construction. “We started with one project,” Price said. “It was a military construction technical control facility at Kandahar Airfield. It was a pretty simple project; yet still bore out a lot of problems. We’ve learned a lot since then.”
Ten years later, USACE with its Afghan partners and construction firms has completed 1,205 projects valued at $7.5 billion. The projects include basing and training facilities for nearly the entire Afghan National Security Forces, border crossing stations, micro-hydroelectric power systems, huge power plants; water wells and transportation improvements.
“Collectively we have built schools and clinics that greatly improved the education and health systems,” Price said. “Together we completed the Salang tunnel improvements, which greatly enhanced the traffic of the Salang pass, enabling commerce to flow freely between northern Afghanistan and Kabul.”
Price added that, in the end, it is not the completed projects that he is most proud of. “They are just buildings.” Most important, every project undertaken and completed by the Afghans represents the economic development in Afghanistan.
“The construction industry has created and provided for many businesses,” Price said. “Afghan companies provide jobs to Afghans, and they in turn provide for their families. Afghans represent Afghan companies that hire Afghans that build facilities for Afghans. In most cases those facilities are for Afghan security forces, which are providing for Afghan security. It is simply a perfect circle.”
The future of capacity building in Afghanistan
In Afghanistan, USACE has seen a lot of change. “We started with one district, then split into two districts in 2008,” Price said. “Then roughly one year ago the decision was made to transition back to one district. The U.S. and coalition footprint in Afghanistan is still not determined, but I believe there will be a USACE presence for the years to come. As our current program winds down, we still have opportunities in the near future.”
At some point, Afghanistan will continue with the work of nation building without coalition assistance. Training and mentoring Afghan engineers and contractors plays a critical role in the overall objective of transitioning to a safe and secure Afghanistan.
USACE employees have a tremendous opportunity now to set up Afghan contractors and Afghan quality assurance engineers (QAE) for success. “The program that I am most proud of is the Afghan quality assurance engineer (QAR), quality assurance representative, and safety programs. As our construction program began to grow in 2006, the Corps of Engineers determined that we needed a larger quality assurance workforce.”
USACE has trained and mentored more than 500 Afghan QAEs and QARs who in turn have trained and mentored thousands of contracted construction personnel.
“This program, I feel, is the future of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan,” Price said. “The Afghan QARs get to places we cannot go; they speak the language of the workforce, understand the culture, and it makes sense for them to help build facilities in their nation.”
Safety is not something USACE takes lightly. Building a culture of construction safety in Afghanistan took a new twist when USACE began developing Afghan safety officers. USACE has trained and mentored a cadre of Afghan safety professionals whose mission is to reduce safety risk hazards. That includes ensuring construction firms provide workers with the proper personal protective equipment such as safety shoes, hard hats, safety glasses and hearing protection. For high-risk activities like working at heights above six feet, trained workers equipped with safety harnesses, properly-maintained fixed or mobile platforms or scaffolds equipped with standard guard rails.
“This program may seem time-consuming to many Afghan construction workers, but in the end protecting the workforce saves lives, time and money, and that is exactly what this program has done,” Price said.
Awarding Afghan QAE Success
During the conference, Price recognized two Afghan quality assurance engineers for their dedication to service. Tory Allami and Hassan Reza were recognized as Afghan QAEs of the year.
In seven years, Tory Allami, who works as a project manager in the Kabul area, has mastered the USACE project management business processes. “In the past year, Allami led all aspects in the construction of 13 major infrastructure projects valued at $192 million.”
Reza, who has also worked for USACE since 2007, covers the western area of Afghanistan. His projects are in less secure regions that often place him at risk. “Hassan has served admirably, assisting in the completion of numerous projects valued at more than $147 million across the western portions of Afghanistan.”