This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In recent weeks, President Obama has been contemplating the future of US military operations in Afghanistan. He has also been touting the effects of his policies at home, reporting that this year's Recovery Act not only saved jobs, but also was "the largest investment in infrastructure since [President Dwight] Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s." At the same time, another much less publicized US-taxpayer-funded infrastructure boom has been underway. This one in Afghanistan.
While Washington has put modest funding into civilian projects in Afghanistan this year—ranging from small-scale power plants to "public latrines" to a meat market—the real construction boom is military in nature. The Pentagon has been funneling stimulus-sized sums of money to defense contractors to markedly boost its military infrastructure in that country.
In fiscal year 2009, for example, the civilian US Agency for International Development awarded $20 million in contracts for work in Afghanistan, while the US Army alone awarded $2.2 billion—$834 million of it for construction projects. In fact, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, the Pentagon has spent "roughly $2.7 billion on construction over the past three fiscal years" in that country and, "if its request is approved as part of the fiscal 2010 defense appropriations bill, it would spend another $1.3 billion on more than 100 projects at 40 sites across the country, according to a Senate report on the legislation."
Bogged Down at Bagram
Nowhere has the building boom been more apparent than Bagram Air Base, a key military site used by the Soviet Union during its occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In its American incarnation, the base has significantly expanded from its old Soviet days and, in just the last two years, the population of the more than 5,000 acre compound has doubled to 20,000 troops, in addition to thousands of coalition forces and civilian contractors. To keep up with its exponential growth rate, more than $200 million in construction projects are planned or in-progress at this moment on just the Air Force section of the base. "Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the rocky earth," Chuck Crumbo of The State reported recently. "Hundreds of laborers slap mortar onto bricks as they build barracks and offices. Four concrete plants on the base have operated around the clock for 18 months to keep up with the construction needs."
The base already boasts fast food favorites Burger King, a combination Pizza Hut/Bojangles, and Popeyes as well as a day spa and shops selling jewelry, cell phones and, of course, Afghan rugs. In the near future, notes Pincus, "the military is planning to build a $30 million passenger terminal and adjacent cargo facility to handle the flow of troops, many of whom arrive at the base north of Kabul before moving on to other sites." In addition, according to the Associated Press, the base command is "acquiring more land next year on the east side to expand" even further.
To handle the influx of troops already being dispatched by the Obama administration (with more expected once the president decides on his long-term war plans) "new dormitories" are going up at Bagram, according to David Axe of the Washington Times. The base's population will also increase in the near future, thanks to a project-in-progress recently profiled in The Freedom Builder, an Army Corps of Engineers publication: the MILCON Bagram Theatre Internment Facility (TIF) currently being built at a cost of $60 million by a team of more than 1,000 Filipinos, Indians, Sri Lankans, and Afghans. When completed, it will consist of 19 buildings and 16 guard towers designed to hold more than 1,000 detainees on the sprawling base which has long been notorious for the torture and even murder of prisoners within its confines.
While the United States officially insists that it is not setting up permanent bases in Afghanistan, the scale and permanency of the construction underway at Bagram seems to suggest, at the least, a very long stay. According to published reports, in fact, the new terminal facilities for the complex aren't even slated to be operational until 2011.
One of the private companies involved in hardening and building up Bagram's facilities is Contrack International, an international engineering and construction firm which, according to US government records, received more than $120 million in contracts in 2009 for work in Afghanistan. According to Contrack's website, it is, among other things, currently designing and constructing a new "entry control point"—a fortified entrance—as well as a new "ammunition supply point" facility at the base. It is also responsible for "the design and construction of taxiways and aprons; airfield lighting and navigation aid improvements; and new apron construction" for the base's massive and expanding air operations infrastructure. The building boom at Bagram (which has received at least a modest amount of attention in the American mainstream press) is, however, just a fraction of the story of the way the US military—and Contrack International—are digging in throughout Afghanistan.
Rave Reviews for Kandahar
In March, according to Pentagon documents, Contrack was awarded a $23 million contract for "the design and construction of [an] Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance ramp, Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan." Last year, in the Washington Post, Pincus reported that a planned expansion at the airfield, also once used by the Soviets and now a major US and NATO base, was to accommodate aircraft working for a Task Force ODIN—an Afghanistan-based version of the Army unit which used drones and helicopters to target insurgents planting IEDs in Iraq. Today, Task Force ODIN-Afghanistan—the acronym stands for "observe, detect, identify and neutralize," with a nod to the chief Norse god—is up and running, and still reportedly piloted out of "Bagram in one of two small, nondescript ground control stations." Whether ODIN aircraft are also operating out of Kandahar Airfield is—like so much information about the US military in Afghanistan—unclear. Certainly, though, many more NATO and US aircraft will be flying out of the base once Contrack, as it notes on its website, completes its "[d]esign and construction of replacement runways with asphalt and touch down areas with concrete pavement" and "rehabilitation of 6 existing taxiways," among other projects.
Contrack's Kandahar contract is set to be fulfilled by late December, but like Bagram, the base already gives every appearance of permanence. "It's one of the busiest single runways in the world," Captain Max Hanlin from the 2nd US Army Division's 5th Stryker Brigade told Agence France-Presse recently. Originally built to house 12,000 troops, Kandahar Air Base now supports 30,000 or more NATO and US personnel. Some do battle in the inhospitable terrain of the surrounding region, while others have never been outside the wire and wile away their time in the base's cafes and small shops (where troops reportedly can buy, among other items, belly dancer costumes), party in the "Dutch corner," play roller hockey in the base's central square, or dance the night away at a Saturday rave. "They are shaking glowsticks as if they have no concept of the mines and the war outside," said one US officer, watching troops on the dance floor.
In recent days, US forces announced a decrease in recreational perks and an imposition of more austere circumstances—salsa and karaoke nights have already been cut at Kandahar—prompting worries by NATO allies that their recreational facilities will be overrun by entertainment-starved US troops.