Soldiers build up base defense in Afghanistan's Parwan province.
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel inside a razor-wire-topped fence. The American military in Afghanistan doesn't want to talk about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.
Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story concrete intelligence facility for America's drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a country where most of the population has no access to electricity. It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a large "processing, exploitation, and dissemination" operations center—and, of course, it will be built with American tax dollars.
Nor is it an anomaly. Despite all the talk of drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a years-long building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating. In early 2010, the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had nearly 400 bases in Afghanistan. Today, Lieutenant Lauren Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.
The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one of many building projects the US military currently has planned or underway in Afghanistan. While some US bases are indeed closing up shop or being transferred to the Afghan government, and there's talk of combat operations slowing or ending next year, as well as a withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 2014, the US military is still preparing for a much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the country's backlands. "Bagram is going through a significant transition during the next year to two years," Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Gerdes of the US Army Corps of Engineers' Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a Corps of Engineers publication. "We're transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base."
Whether the US military will still be in Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be seen, but steps are currently being taken to make that possible. US military publications, plans and schematics, contracting documents, and other official data examined by TomDispatch catalog hundreds of construction projects worth billions of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012.
While many of these efforts are geared toward structures for Afghan forces or civilian institutions, a considerable number involve US facilities, some of the most significant being dedicated to the ascendant forms of American warfare: drone operations and missions by elite special operations units. The available plans for most of these projects suggest durability. "The structures that are going in are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and tent skins," says Gerdes. As of last December, his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction projects for US or international coalition partners worth almost $427 million.
The Big Base Build-Up
Recently, the New York Times reported that President Obama is likely to approve a plan to shift much of the US effort in Afghanistan to special operations forces. These elite troops would then conduct kill/capture missions and train local troops well beyond 2014. Recent building efforts in the country bear this out.
A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, involves the construction of a special operations forces complex, a clandestine base within a base that will afford America's black ops troops secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other US and coalition forces. Begun in 2010, the $29 million project is slated to be completed this May and join roughly 90 locations around the country where troops from Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.
Elsewhere on Bagram, tens of millions of dollars are being spent on projects that are less sexy but no less integral to the war effort, like paving dirt roads and upgrading drainage systems on the mega-base. In January, the US military awarded a $7 million contract to a Turkish construction company to build a 24,000-square-foot command-and-control facility. Plans are also in the works for a new operations center to support tactical fighter jet missions, a new flight-line fire station, as well as more lighting and other improvements to support the American air war.
Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered that the US-run prison at Bagram be transferred to Afghan control. By the end of January, the US had issued a $36 million contract for the construction, within a year, of a new prison on the base. While details are sparse, plans for the detention center indicate a thoroughly modern, high-security facility complete with guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, administrative facilities, and the capacity to house about 2,000 prisoners.
At Kandahar Air Field, that new intelligence facility for the drone war will be joined by a similarly-sized structure devoted to administrative operations and maintenance tasks associated with robotic aerial missions. It will be able to accommodate as many as 180 personnel at a time. With an estimated combined price tag of up to $5 million, both buildings will be integral to Air Force and possibly CIA operations involving both the MQ-1 Predator drone and its more advanced and more heavily-armed progeny, the MQ-9 Reaper.
The military is keeping information about these drone facilities under extraordinarily tight wraps. They refused to answer questions about whether, for instance, the construction of these new centers for robotic warfare are in any way related to the loss of Shamsi Air Base in neighboring Pakistan as a drone operations center, or if they signal efforts to increase the tempo of drone missions in the years ahead. The International Joint Command's chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, aware that such questions were to be posed, backed out of a planned interview with TomDispatch.
"Unfortunately our ISR chief here in the International Joint Command is going to be unable to address your questions," Lieutenant Ryan Welsh of ISAF Joint Command Media Outreach explained by email just days before the scheduled interview. He also made it clear that any question involving drone operations in Pakistan was off limits. "The issues that you raise are outside the scope under which the IJC operates, therefore we are unable to facilitate this interview request."
Whether the construction at Kandahar is designed to free up facilities elsewhere for CIA drone operations across the border in Pakistan or is related only to missions within Afghanistan, it strongly suggests a ramping up of unmanned operations. It is, however, just one facet of the ongoing construction at the air field. This month, a $26 million project to build 11 new structures devoted to tactical vehicle maintenance at Kandahar is scheduled for completion. With two large buildings for upkeep and repairs, one devoted strictly to fixing tires, another to painting vehicles, as well as an industrial-sized car wash, and administrative and storage facilities, the big base's building boom shows no sign of flickering out.