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Afghanistan: Passing the baton

The Royal Engineers are closely involved with the effort to demilitarise and rebuild Afghanistan in preparation for the withdrawal of Nato troops. Gary Sullivan reports from Helmand province.

Ubique. Everywhere, that is the motto of the Royal Engineers (RE) and never more true than in Afghanistan. As you travel with the British Army there is always a Sapper somewhere doing something.

The rivalry in the army will always be that units will claim bragging rights whenever they can; however one suspects that the Sappers’ motto appears to be unchallenged when it comes to being “everywhere”.

We all know of the amazing work of the RE (with their Logistics colleagues) in disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and when it comes to the design and construction of the longest single-span crossing built by military engineers since the Second World War (the Malvern Crossing bridges the Nahr-e-Saraj canal), you’re not surprised that it only took them two weeks to complete.

Project management

The Sappers also project managed the completion of the 279,375m2 runway extension at Camp Bastion, which saw around 21,500 aircraft land on it during a six-month tour.

As we move to the cessation of combat operations in 2014, there will be a new tranche of work, the Base Reconciliation and Closure Programme.

The transition of Helmand province back in to the control of Afghans is well under way and the consequences of this for the Royal Engineers are reversed from the operations of the last 10 years.

Some patrol bases and check points will be handed over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), some new check points will be built for the ANSF (see box) but most will close. The deconstruction of the many patrol bases that stretch across Helmand will involve the RE, as every piece of equipment and every sandbag is returned to Camp Bastion and their locations are returned to the landowners.

This major task is only made easier in that a schedule of dilapidation will not be required.

Army built check points are being replaced using local techniques to ensure they are suitable for local security forces post-transition.

Army built check points are being replaced using local techniques to ensure they are suitable for local security forces post-transition.

Check point changes

The Army has used a product called Hesco to build its check points and patrol bases. It is a wire mesh and hessian arrangement filled with aggregate. Hesco is flexible, effective and, most importantly, gives great protection against enemy fire.

But the Afghans lack the military engineering capacity to use it or maintain it.

As control of security and governance passes back into Afghan control, the Helmand plan includes leaving suitable and sufficient check points and police stations for the Afghan National Security Forces to be able to maintain security. The MSSTs, working with the STRE, have developed a traditional Afghan-build check point.

For years the Afghans have used the same soil that makes Helmand fertile to create the buildings they live in. The Afghans have taught the Sappers how to use the most readily available material, to create buildings in which their occupants will feel comfortable and which they can repair. The Royal Engineers are mixing the traditional Afghan building techniques with some modern use of concrete and rebar to build Afghan check points (in which the Afghans live and work), so that they are stronger than ordinary Afghan buildings and have a basic sewerage system. Importantly for the Afghans, unlike the Hesco Check Point, they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Traditional compacted, earth-made bricks used in Afghanistan are eco-friendly because they are low carbon, use local materials and need less energy than kiln-fired bricks.

As an added bonus, they are cheap, easy to make and easy to build with. The bricks are made using soil and a little cement or lime. The machine used to make the bricks is human powered, so it can be used in areas without electricity. The bricks need no cement to secure them in place as they can be slotted together using a tongue-and-groove method. Several layers of Afghan straw and plaster rendering make what is called an Original Build Earthwork.

Captain Gareth Redman of the Royal Engineers, working as part of the MSST in Lashkar Gar, took NCE out to an out-of-town Check Point.

Road moves are still dangerous in Afghanistan so everyone wears body armour, helmets and travels in heavily armoured vehicles. At the borders of Nad Ali and Nahr-e-Saraj the team arrives and the soldiers go into well rehearsed drills checking for IEDs. Redman goes to speak to the Afghan Police who are very happy to show off their new home.

They say it is more comfortable, they can live there in comfort and that the check point gives them more respect in the community as it is built by Afghans for Afghans and it gives them identity and authority.

But before then there is still work to do to ensure the infrastructure gives Afghans every opportunity to support and govern themselves going forward. The Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (HPRT) is a UK-led, United States, Danish and Estonian supported effort to help with the delivery governance and economic development for the Afghan people.

One strand of that work is to use infrastructure as a force for good. Supporting the HPRT are the Specialist Team Royal Engineers (see box) and the Military Stabilisation Support Teams (MSSTs).

The MSSTs are an Army, Navy and Air Force group of stabilisation specialists and six teams are deployed across Helmand Province. In each MSST there is at least one Royal Engineer to offer advice and guidance to the teams where construction forms part of the stabilisation effort.

These are the project managers, quantity surveyors, procurement advisors and site managers working with the Battle Groups and the HPRT’s Stabilisation Advisors (StabAds), to ensure that as the Taliban is cleared from the towns and villages, the schools they smashed, the canals they vandalised are repaired or replaced, so the region can move on from the destruction of 30 years of war following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s.

The big ticket items such as roads, power and canals, are dealt with by the STRE. The MSST work is done at a local level with the local Afghan communities. This can involve, for example, replacing destroyed bazaars, schools and healthcare facilities.

Supporting the Afghan people in regaining control of their lives is a complex and painstakingly slow process. The combat troops have to provide security first and foremost, before winning the people round by listening to their needs and then delivering. That usually starts small with the replacement of crossing points and culverts for streams and irrigation ditches vital for farming. It will also involve installing boreholes and pumps.

Day in the life of a royal Engineer

You know you are getting old when Royal Engineer sergeants look as young as Dan Waterfield. Waterfield’s youthful looks betray his experience as an MSST (Military Stabilisation Support Team) operator.

Waterfield is a Territorial Army soldier with 10 years experience, a degree in construction and considerable knowledge of the Helmand Plan and the British Army’s history in “stabilisation”.

As a civilian Waterfield has worked with Allenbuild, based in Leeds, and with the Keepmoat Group where as a construction design manager, he worked on a number of social housing projects. So what brings him to Afghanistan?

“Today’s army looks to utilise the skills it has across all parts of the military, my background made me a candidate for construction and regeneration.

“I considered the Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE), but decided I may be better placed to manage my own, perhaps more discreet projects, than if I was in a specialist team delivering big infrastructure projects”.

The MSSTs work very closely with the battle groups. Waterfield is co-located with A Company of the 3rd Battalion the Rifles, part of the 3 Yorks Battle Group, based in a check point in Narh-e-Saraj, east of Camp Bastion.

Waterfield’s job is to advise and support the Battle Group in its stabilisation effort, he is also the point of contact for local people, should the troops damage crops or property while fighting the Taliban. The negotiating skills acquired in construction come in handy, he says. Outside the check point, the patrol wends its way through the ochre coloured landscape which is dissected with swathes of green from wheat, barley and poppy.

The soldiers are laden with kit, no one carrying less than 50kg, and this is just a short patrol. They move slowly in the 40˚C heat, checking the ground signs for IEDs and scanning the horizon for enemy fighters.

The school Waterfield is project managing is near the patrol base, partly as it is close to the old dilapidated school and partly due to it being easier to maintain security for the Afghan contractors working on the build.

The Taliban smashed schools that did not comply with their way of educating. The new build is a brick built construction, a little short of UK standards, says Waterfield with a smile. Waterfield inspects the works and speaks to the contractors on site. The teacher lives close by and comes to chat and then it is time to return to base.

With the UK market in recession Waterfield sees this deployment as an opportunity to learn more skills that will help him find a job when he returns to the UK.

Next stop is commander of the Afghan local police. His check point, which is an untidy mix of plastic chairs, mattress and blankets, typically Afghan except the giant TV, as yet not plugged in. Waterfield discusses future work on the Afghan check point and repairs to a compound in the local village. He also sounds out the local police chief about the various contractors that are pushing for work in the area.

Waterfield explains that his role is extremely varied, from negotiating with and compensating local farmers for cutting down crops so the base has a clear view of the surrounding area, to engaging with contractors to build culverts and small bridges across ditches and streams.

He has to balance the books. He cannot build everything the locals want and has to encourage them to work through the ministries and district councils, preparing them for when ISAF forces are no longer there.

The perceived wisdom is that you need a beard and a few wrinkles to earn the respect of the Afghan elders, but not in Waterfield’s case; they respect his knowledge and education.

The installation of solar lighting in the village of Loy Mandeh, the scene of some fierce fighting in the past, improved security and allowed the bazaars to open longer in the winter, improving the social economic development of villages. It is hoped that as the economy grows, stability will improve with people empowered to turn away from the Taliban.

In Loy Mandeh, the situation continues to improve. A new bridge into the centre of town and repairs to sluice gates for irrigation all help establish a thriving community. Loy Mandeh is in the Nad Ali district, which is already through transition and showing signs of being a sustainable community.

The icing on the cake is the opening of the new school, destroyed in spite by the Taliban, now complete and ready for opening after the summer harvest.

The main route into Lashkar Gar is across the Helmand River and importantly across the Bolan Bridge. The bridge - built in the 1960s - has suffered from war, wear and tear and the effects of the fast flowing river.

Specially trained RE divers from 35 Engineer Regiment were brought in to investigate the below the waterline damage and install flow meters to help predict the effects of the river on the bridge’s steel supports.

This four-hour operation, conducted in the dead of night for security purposes, was a great success.

  • Gary Sullivan is chairman of Wilson James’ construction logistics business. He is the author of Managing construction logistics and chair of the Olympic Legacy board for Essex. Sullivan was recently awarded an OBE for services to the Regeneration of Thames Gateway South Essex.

In-House Consultancy

The Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) provide the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team with infrastructure engineering and design support. They are the Royal Engineers’ in-house,
multi-disciplinary consultancy.

Where the Sappers are located with battle groups, they are the deliverers of combat engineer support. They blow things up, provide mobile bridging capacity, build patrol bases among other tasks.

In addition to providing the technical solutions the STRE look to build capacity within the local supply base, contracting with Afghan contractors.

STRE also work closely with the HPRT to enhance capability in the government’s line ministries, from front-end design to operation and maintenance. Based in Lashkar Gar, Helmand province, they are organised into teams that advise on roads, bridges, canals, power and vertical construction. Supporting the STRE back in the UK is Mott MacDonald. Blacktop roads are crucial to growing the economy of Helmand and there is a security implication too. It is harder to hide IEDs in asphalt roads.

In the early 1960s, Americans working with the Helmand Arghandab Construction Company built a series of canals and water courses to sustain Afghanistan’s most fertile farmland that is now called the Green Zone.

There are six primary canals, 416 known assets measuring 400km, which are fed from the Helmand River.

Forty five years of neglect and 30 years of war have taken their toll. The HPRT and STRE working with the Afghan authorities have put in place a programme to ensure the ongoing repair and planned maintenance is sustainable when the international support ceases in 2014.

The military engineers have also operated a significant mentoring scheme, developing capacity and training young Afghan engineers.

In addition to building roads, bridges and canals, the STRE are the Helmand PRT Power Programme Managers (PPMs). The ravages of war and in particular the wilful destruction of infrastructure by the insurgency, has left Helmand with limited and unreliable power generation. The PPMs’ objective is to provide affordable on and off grid electrical power.

STRE personnel look like every other soldier you meet in Afghanistan; they are comfortable in their body armour and carry their weapons with the confidence of combat troops.

But they speak a different language. Whether officers or NCOs they are engineers first, passionate about their work, eager to share the knowledge they have. They love it when something that was broken gets fixed. You cannot fail to be impressed when you see them out on the ground finding practical solutions to fix ageing infrastructure. They are equally impressive when blowing the sand off the keyboard of their laptops and doing the calculations for a new bridge design.


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