Massive new construction program under way at sprawling facility in order to accommodate expected doubling of population
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The coming transformation of the war in Kandahar is summarized in a cartoon posted inside Canada's military headquarters. It depicts a huge wave crashing toward a tiny sandcastle on a beach, indicating the overwhelming force of many thousand U.S. troops expected to sweep into southern Afghanistan next year.
The New York Times reported this weekend that the first brigade of new troops will go north to protect Kabul, the capital city, but a massive new program of base construction shows the United States preparing to send a bigger share of its additional forces to Kandahar in the south.
Engineers say they're planning an $850-million (U.S.) expansion of Kandahar Air Field in the coming year, approximately doubling the population of the sprawling facility to make it the largest military base in Afghanistan. That means space available for a minimum of 12,000 more personnel to stand alongside Canada's troops in Kandahar.
"It's a huge expansion of the population coming," said Lieutenant-Colonel Kevin Horgan, a Canadian who serves as KAF's base engineer. "It's not an if, it's not even a when. It's just coming, and we're doing everything we can to support the inflow
The precise number of troops expected changes frequently, engineers say; one U.S. officer said his superiors are telling him to prepare for a minimum 60-per-cent expansion of KAF in the next two years, while other plans have the base nearly tripling its population in a year. Col. Horgan, who co-ordinates the expansion plans on behalf of the base commander, said it's "almost guaranteed" that KAF will double in size within 12 months.
Whatever the size and timing of the expansion, however, it shows a shifting emphasis in the war. For years, the largest military facility in the country has been Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, the main hub for U.S. forces concentrated in the mountainous eastern region where the Taliban insurgents are reportedly mixed with other extremists such as al-Qaeda fighters.
Now the balance of American power appears to be shifting south, toward the deserts and river valleys where the Taliban were born and a majority of the insurgents are local tribesmen.
"It will be quite a bit bigger than Bagram," said Lieutenant-Colonel John Uptmor, a U.S. engineer who is leading the U.S. expansion at KAF. His team of planners works punishing hours in a small trailer preparing for the influx; he says the work leaves him so exhausted that he no longer dreams during his short spells of sleep.
"I can't remember the last time I got to bed before midnight," Col. Uptmor said.
The work's urgency comes from the rising violence in the south.
Insurgents launched more attacks in Kandahar this year than in any other province, according to new statistics from the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, and the volume of attacks in November was almost triple the number during the same month in 2006. Aid agencies have largely evacuated their foreign staff from Kandahar city.
As the international staffers disappear from the city streets, however, the military base 17 kilometres down the highway is alive with activity. Construction sites around the base are filled with the scream of electric saws and the crackle of welders' arcs.
"It's like you're in a really active industrial area," said Col. Christopher Coates, commander of Canada's air wing, one of many new units jockeying for spots on the airfield. Crews are paving hectares of parking for aircraft, building a large heliport for incoming U.S. air cavalry units, and erecting gleaming hangars for the fledgling Afghan air force.
"It's almost unbelievable," Col. Coates said. "They've turned it very quickly into usable infrastructure from what was a dusty lot." One of the most expensive buildings under construction is a $35-million (U.S.) hospital, twice the size of KAF's current medical facility. Patients are now treated in a series of tents, containers and plywood huts, based on a Vietnam-era building kit that has been renovated 17 times as the number of casualties grows.
"Right now, we've got bits and pieces of everything, and wires hanging from the ceiling - it's quite scary," said Major Don Schell, deputy commander of the health unit.
The new hospital will be made of concrete strong enough to resist the 107-millimetre rockets that regularly slam into the base, like several other buildings under construction. Even the new Italian restaurant is equipped with thick concrete walls, giving a more permanent appearance than the Tim Hortons, Subway and Burger King outlets all camped in modified trailers.
That impression of long-term planning will grow stronger as road paving begins next year on major routes around the base, and technicians start laying down a fibre-optic network for communications. Col. Horgan said the engineers aren't preparing for a long occupation, however; he said the permanent structures are being designed for eventual handover to Afghan forces.
Still, he acknowledged that some aspects of the base would be difficult for the Afghans to maintain. Even the NATO engineers are having difficulty handling KAF's garbage disposal, he said. The base already produces about 50 tonnes of waste per day, he said, and that number is expected to double. The current method of burning heaps of trash, which sends a foul column of smoke over the base, "would certainly not meet North American requirements," he said.
A more common odour lingering over the base is the smell of raw sewage.
KAF's waste-water treatment facility, nicknamed Emerald Lake because of its unnatural colour, was originally designed for 5,000 people and now strains to cope with the effluent from at least 12,000 people at KAF on any given day.
It will eventually be replaced by a sewage plant capable of serving 30,000 people, Col. Horgan said, but the plant may not be ready for 12 to 18 months. The engineers are urgently trying to order portable bioreactors as a temporary measure, he said, but they probably won't be ready before the wave of U.S. troops arrives.
"The reality is, there's probably a gap," he said, then wrinkled his nose as he contemplated the result. "That will probably be a challenge."
BY THE NUMBERS
Government officials in the United States aren't cagey about how many more troops are headed for the Kandahar area in the next year, but construction plans at Kandahar Air Field - the main military base in the region - give a clearer picture of the expansion.
Estimated Population of KAF, including military and civilian personnel, in February, 2006.
Population of KAF, including military and civilian personnel, in December, 2008.
100 per cent
Percentage by which KAF's population is expected to grow in the coming year.
Number of people for which current KAF sewage system was designed.
Number of people for which new KAF sewage system will be designed.
Kandahar Air Field's rank, by size, among the military bases in Afghanistan, after the expansions.
Estimated cost (in millions U.S.) of planned construction at KAF in the coming year.
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