The U.S. may not have money for infrastructure repairs, but Afghanistan does
By Walter Pincus,
President Obama’s “Fix-It-First” program to repair bridges, proposed in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, may be getting a test run in Afghanistan.
Don’t worry about the lack of money in this country that could limit fixing those “nearly 70,000 structurally deficient bridges” Obama mentioned.
The Afghanistan Security Forces Fund and the Economic Support Fund for Afghanistan have roughly $6 billion in unobligated money from the past two years, enough to cover that country’s projects through 2014, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). And there’s about $6 billion more in the fiscal 2013 budget.
Sequestration is expected to cut the unobligated 2011 and 2012 money by only 9.4 percent, if it takes effect for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.
The Army Corps of Engineers is prepared to spend up to $25 million to repair four bridges and widen and resurface 20 miles of roadway in the Gulam Khan Transportation Corridor, which runs through Khost province to the border with Pakistan’s North Waziristan Province, according to a Corps description. Fixing the corridor will increase trade by reducing the travel time between the Afghan capital, Kabul, and Karachi, Pakistan’s chief port city.
Poor drainage caused the bridge erosion, so the project’s contractor must install edge drains along the road and provide a new reinforced-concrete bridge deck.
One of the more interesting problems for the contractor is designing what is known as “Friendship Circle,” described as “a traffic direction changing system . . . that will allow vehicles to efficiently change driving sides at the border since Afghanistan and Pakistan drive on opposite sides of the road,” according to the Corps project specifications. Pakistanis drive on the left side; Afghans on the right.
While the United States is withdrawing its combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the Corps is continuing a vast construction program there, primarily providing facilities for the planned 352,000-member Afghan National Security Forces, which include the Afghan army and its border and national police. According to a U.S. Army Web site, in 2012 the Corps office headquartered at Kandahar Airfield alone awarded 11 projects totaling $1.28 billion. During that same period, contractors completed roughly $795 million worth of projects, primarily for the Afghan National Security Forces.
One of the most exotic Corps projects was to revamp the power plant, lighting, ventilation systems and pavement of the Salang Tunnel, more than 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush mountains and a key part of the northern route for supplies going to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
The $12.8 million contract for these short-term fixes to the Soviet-built tunnel was awarded to the Omran Holding Group, an Afghan company that has until October to finish the job. Meanwhile, the tunnel will be needed for U.S. and NATO military equipment both arriving in and leaving Afghanistan.
Just this month there were six other Corps construction contracts offered or amended, including a new $10 million forward-area arming and refueling point for the Afghan air force at Kunduz Civil Airport. It will not be completed until mid-2014. There’s also the fourth phase of the Afghan army’s Kabul training center, the cost of which could go as high as $100 million.
One project was canceled: the designing and building of austere border police stations, to be located “in remote and potentially dangerous locations east of Kabul Province.” They were to house up to 60 people, be served by helicopter and be constructed on site using “quick modular or panelized structures.” Sanitation was to be “outdoor toilets,” and the buildings would have had “simple ceiling fans and minimal lighting supported by minimal power requirements.”
The Corps said it could have been a $25 million or more project. But, it said, “the solicitation produced little competition, and little design innovation.” Now the plan is “to develop an innovative approach using in-house designers.”
As of Dec. 31, U.S. completed or planned construction of facilities for the Afghan army and national police has totaled at least $11.6 billion, according to the recent SIGAR quarterly report.
The special inspector general for Afghanistan, John F. Sopko, on Friday wrote to U.S. government departments and agencies working in that country, seeking details about all the projects underway or planned for the transition. He wants to conduct detailed oversight of the $75 billion appropriated for all Afghan reconstruction funding through the end of last year and to get an indication of what is planned for this year and next.
It is the first time such a request has been made, according to SIGAR officials.
And it’s about time.