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Settling Down in Afghanistan

Despite Washington's talk of drawdowns, our tax dollars are funding a base building boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of abating.

| Mon Feb. 13, 2012 3:40 PM EST

Construction and Reconstruction

This year, at Herat Air Base in the province of the same name bordering Turkmenistan and Iran, the US is slated to begin a multimillion-dollar project to enhance its special forces' air operations. Plans are in the works to expand apron space—where aircraft can be parked, serviced, and loaded or unloaded—for helicopters and airplanes, as well as to build new taxiways and aircraft shelters.

That project is just one of nearly 130, cumulatively valued at about $1.5 billion, slated to be carried out in Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar provinces this year, according to Army Corps of Engineers documents examined by TomDispatch. These also include efforts at Camp Tombstone and Camp Dwyer, both in Helmand Province as well as Kandahar's FOB Hadrian and FOB Wilson. The US military also recently awarded a contract for more air field apron space at a base in Kunduz, a new secure entrance and new roads for FOB Delaram II, and new utilities and roads at FOB Shank, while the Marines recently built a new chapel at Camp Bastion.

Seven years ago, Forward Operating Base Sweeney, located a mile up in a mountain range in Zabul Province, was a well-outfitted, if remote, American base. After US troops abandoned it, however, the base fell into disrepair. Last month, American troops returned in force and began rebuilding the outpost, constructing everything from new troop housing to a new storage facility. "We built a lot of buildings, we put up a lot of tents, we filled a lot of sandbags, and we increased our force protection significantly," Captain Joe Mickley, commanding officer of the soldiers taking up residence at the base, told a military reporter.

 

Decommission and Deconstruction

Hesco barriers are, in essence, big bags of dirt. Up to seven feet tall, made of canvas and heavy gauge wire mesh, they form protective walls around US outposts all over Afghanistan. They'll take the worst of sniper rounds, rifle-propelled grenades, even mortar shells, but one thing can absolutely wreck them—the Marines' 9th Engineer Support Battalion.

At the beginning of December, the 9th Engineers were building bases and filling up Hescos in Helmand Province. By the end of the month, they were tearing others down.

Wielding pickaxes, shovels, bolt-cutters, powerful rescue saws, and front-end loaders, they have begun "demilitarizing" bases, cutting countless Hescos—which cost $700 or more a pop—into heaps of jagged scrap metal and bulldozing berms in advance of the announced American withdrawal from Afghanistan. At Firebase Saenz, for example, Marines were bathed in a sea of crimson sparks as they sawed their way through the metal mesh and let the dirt spill out, leaving a country already haunted by the ghosts of British and Russian bases with yet another defunct foreign outpost. After Saenz, it was on to another patrol base slated for destruction.

Not all rural outposts are being torn down, however. Some are being handed over to the Afghan Army or police. And new facilities are now being built for the indigenous forces at an increasing rate. "If current projections remain accurate, we will award 18 contracts in February," Bonnie Perry, the head of contracting for the Army Corps of Engineers' Afghanistan Engineering District-South, told military reporter Karla Marshall. "Next quarter we expect that awards will remain high, with the largest number of contract awards occurring in May." One of the projects underway is a large base near Herat, which will include barracks, dining facilities, office space, and other amenities for Afghan commandos.

 

Tell Me How This Ends

No one should be surprised that the US military is building up and tearing down bases at the same time, nor that much of the new construction is going on at mega-bases, while small outposts in the countryside are being abandoned. This is exactly what you would expect of an occupation force looking to scale back its "footprint" and end major combat operations while maintaining an on-going presence in Afghanistan. Given the US military's projected retreat to its giant bases and an increased reliance on kill/capture black-ops as well as unmanned air missions, it's also no surprise that its signature projects for 2012 include a new special operations forces compound, clandestine drone facilities, and a brand new military prison.

There's little doubt Bagram Air Base will exist in five or 10 years. Just who will be occupying it is, however, less clear. After all, in Iraq, the Obama administration negotiated for some way to station a significant military force—10,000 or more troops—there beyond a withdrawal date that had been set in stone for years. While a token number of US troops and a highly militarized State Department contingent remain there, the Iraqi government largely thwarted the American efforts—and now, even the State Department presence is being halved.

It's less likely this will be the case in Afghanistan, but it remains possible. Still, it's clear that the military is building in that country as if an enduring American presence were a given. Whatever the outcome, vestiges of the current base-building boom will endure and become part of America's Afghan legacy.

On Bagram's grounds stands a distinctive structure called the "Crow's Nest." It's an old control tower built by the Soviets to coordinate their military operations in Afghanistan. That foreign force left the country in 1989. The Soviet Union itself departed from the planet less than three years later. The tower remains.

America's new prison in Bagram will undoubtedly remain, too. Just who the jailers will be and who will be locked inside five years or 10 years from now is, of course, unknown. But given the history—marked by torture and deaths—of the appalling treatment of inmates at Bagram and, more generally, of the brutality toward prisoners by all parties to the conflict over the years, in no scenario are the results likely to be pretty.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com. An award-winning journalist, his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and regularly at TomDispatch. This article is the sixth in his new serieson the changing face of American empire, which is being underwritten by Lannan Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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