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Royal Engineers in Afghanistan: Programmed for peace

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 10th year, the Royal Engineers are working relentlessly to help deliver peace and stability on the ground in the challenging conditions of Helmand Province. Declan Lynch reports on their work from Lashkar Gah.

The motto of the Royal Engineers is “Ubique”, meaning everywhere. So it is no surprise that members of the corps are involved in all elements of the Helmand reconstruction efforts to help stabilise the area. They are embedded in the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), a civilian-led organisation, which aims to deliver effective government and security in the province.

This is being delivered by building the essential infrastructure such as roads, schools, hospitals, police stations and energy projects required for a functioning province.

“Projects are being chosen which have the most effect on stabilising the country,” says Captain Andy Jennings.

“This is what will make the difference to the Afghan population,” adds Major Steve Lumley. “We want the local Afghan contractors to succeed.”

Afghan Projects Value

District Stabilisation £400,000
Education £900,000
Governance £2.2M
Health £650,000
Infrastructure £29.3M
Rule of law £13.5M
Strategic Communications £200,000
Security £1.4M

Lumley and Jennings are heading up the 62 Works Group, Royal Engineers efforts in the PRT. They lead the Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) Helmand PRT, which is embedded in the organisation to design, procure and manage the PRT’s projects. The 20-strong team consists of specialist engineers, from clerks of works to foremen, who can deliver the projects.

“We’re here because we have experience of working in similar environments such as Iraq. There is a huge pool of talent we can tap into (back in the UK) and we’re cheap. We can work in dangerous zones because we’re trained soldiers,” says Capt Jennings.

Working cell

The STRE has been working for the PRT for 18 months, but has always had a working cell embedded since the UK took responsibility for running the operation four years ago.

“There is a huge pool of talent we can tap into and we’re cheap. We can work in dangerous zones”

Captain Andy Jennings, Royal Engineers

Helmand PRT coordinates international stabilisation and development work across the province, working with the Government of Afghanistan, the two International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) brigades in the province - Task Force Helmand (UK, Denmark, Estonia) and Task Force Leatherneck (US) - and international donors.

The Royal Engineers’ work focuses mainly on the Task Force Helmand element of the PRT in the central part of the province. It includes the major towns of Lashkar Gah (population 84,100), Nad-e-Ali (99,200) and Nehr Saraj/Gareshk (98,000).

Task Force Helmand’s PRT has a current budget of $110M (£71.5M), which must be allocated by 1 April 2011, and which is funded primarily by the UK government.

Live projects

The PRT has about 110 jobs on its books with £33.6M of live projects and the Helmand Plan governs its activities. This is an overarching scheme designed to guide the work of the international partners in Helmand.

The main driver of the plan is to establish programmes of work that will persuade Afghans to reject the Taliban insurgency and support the Afghan government. While there is no stated end date, the plan works on 12-month outcomes, with 2014 being discussed as when the work will be fully transferred to the Afghan provincial government.

At this level, the plan is structured around 10 areas: politics and reintegration, security, governance, police, justice (rule of law), infrastructure, counter-narcotics, health, education and economic growth. Each of the PRT projects will fall into one of the themes and head of mission Lindy Cameron leads the organisation.

“We show them the difference between compacted and non-compacted concrete and they do see the benefits”

Staff Sgt Stuart Henson, STRE


Key to persuading Afghans to reject the insurgency is providing security and freedom of movement (key principles of the British Army’s presence in Helmand) and this is reflected as the biggest spend areas of the £71.5M budget.

Lumley and Jennings are charged with turning the plan into “on the ground” improvements to roads and prisons/police stations.
“We are working with contractors to bring them up to standard. There are different practices in working compared with the UK. You will often hear “Afghan good enough”, which means good enough for the current project. There would be no point in trying to match UK standards as we couldn’t achieve them,” says Capt Jennings.

Prison Centre

Construction for the new prison building in central Lashkar Gah city is underway, with half the prison complex already in use. Afghan contractor Masood Akbar Construction Agency is building the £640,00 project under a design build contract. STRE’s Staff Sergeant Stuart Henson, who is acting as a project manager for the client, is overseeing construction.

Construction consists of several buildings - a dining hall, administration building, staff barracks, and juvenile wing - with confined masonry the standard design.

Challenges to construction include ensuring that the building is properly set out. Staff Sgt Henson uses visual aids to show contractors how they should set out the building outline by drawing chalk on the ground.

Producing quality reinforced concrete also remains a significant challenge.

Due to the exorbitant cost of aggregate - up to £550 per tonne, similar UK cost would be £50 to £100 per tonne - contractors are using river pebbles as a substitute.

“They don’t understand that you can’t replace aggregate with pebbles. The size and shape means that the concrete will not bond,” says Henson. “They don’t see the need to vibrate the concrete during pours for compaction. We show them the difference between compacted and non-compacted concrete and they do see the benefits but it takes a while for them to convert.”

“They are very competent at metal work however. The steel window frames are manufactured to a high standard, as is the reinforcement.”

Another major problem is the timber scaffolding and formwork. The timber is of varying quality and there have been collapses. Site safety and tidiness is also difficult.

However, this project is due for completion by December 2010. Buildings are getting built, and the PRT is providing an important economic stimulus.

Police Patrol Centre

Not all the PRT projects take place within Lashkar Gah, and these are managed from patrol bases located around the province. A police patrol centre is being constructed in the Nahr-e Saraj district, and is being constructed close to an existing British and Afghan National Army (ANA) patrol base.

The centre is being constructed in what the British Army call the “green zone” - an area of irrigated land north of the Helmand River and south of a major canal - and is nothing like the green zone safe area of Baghdad.

Insurgents have infiltrated the area making it very dangerous for allied forces to patrol and build projects. Captain Dan Hopwood is overseeing the construction.

“It’s difficult, we are constantly clearing the area of IEDs,” says Captain Hopwood. Five ANA soldiers died in an improvised explosive device (IED) attack within 100m of the centre in the week before NCE’s visit.

The centre consists of a perimeter wall with watch towers at strategic points. Within the courtyard are buildings which house classrooms, wash facilities and bedrooms for use by the Afghan National Police.

“We’ve got a workable training area and a local HQ for the ANP,” says Major Rupert Smith, who will be living in the camp to train the police. “It’s a key that we live together - not so long ago this would not have happened.The policemen are from the local area so will have local knowledge.”

Construction began in April and is due to finish later this month. Security is the number one priority for both forces though, with the building’s systems being reviewed in light of recent “rogue policeman” activity.

Leading the construction is local Afghan builder Eng Dawodi. He leads up to eight local contractors, who are split into steel fixers and general labourers.

“The biggest difficulty is getting the construction materials from Lashkar Gah. The road is not safe and my material has been stolen en route,” says Dawodi.

Patrol Base

The Royal Engineers have built over 100 patrol bases in central Helmand, ranging from small checkpoints with five soldiers to foreword operating bases housing more than 300. Each one takes extensive investigation and manpower to construct, and each must help the Army to achieve its military objectives.

There are four types of bases - level zero, which has no cover, no water and is essentially soldiers living out in the wild - up to level three, which has tented accommodation, running water, cookhouse, communications and welfare facilities.

Along with Route Trident, the Army is hard at work building patrol bases in Nahr-e-Saraj district.

These are being built to help patrol and stabilise the area. They are for use by the British Army, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

“The biggest problem is moving about, it takes such a long time and gives plenty of opportunity for the insurgency to plant IEDs,” says Staff Sergeant Barratt of 21 Engineer Regiment Armoured Engineer Squadron, who works as a foreman on constructing patrol bases out in Nahr-e-Saraj.

“The base is being constructed on an IED belt. It took over 10 days to clear it and we’ve found a lot on the site since”

Corporal Wilkes, Royal Engineers

The Army move from base to base in three to five vehicle convoys. They travel in Mastiffs, armoured vehicles that are safe but slow, and require at least three soldiers per vehicle to operate. Soldiers can’t simply pop out to get supplies; they must time it with the movements.

Barratt is currently constructing the newest patrol base in the area.

“Once we’ve identified the area and performed a recce, we’ll decide what containers are required for construction and deliver them close to the site.” Containers are delivered from Bastion, about 30km away, by a truck convey.

“First we’ll level the area, and then build the perimeter wall using Hesco bastion gabions, collapsible wire mesh containers with heavy duty fabric liners filled with sand or gravel, and sanger (a fortified position) points. Then we’ll start constructing the tents, communications, ablutions and everything else required to keep the base running.”

It is difficult work; the Army has about 10-15 men working on the construction who are sitting ducks for the enemy. There is force protection in the area but despite this the soldiers have come under heavy fire.

“The base is being constructed on an IED belt. It took over 10 days to clear it and we’ve still found a lot on the site since,” said Corporal Wilkes who is busily working on constructing the perimeter wall.
There have been a number of injuries due to enemy fire, and the base is named after a soldier who died constructing a checkpoint nearby.

When completed the base receives supplies about once a week in containers delivered from Bastion or Kabul.
Once UK operations are complete in the area, the bases will be handed over to the local police and army.

Expansion of Route Trident

Royal Engineers is expanding Route Trident (NCE 8 July 2010) to the north and south of the existing route.
Once completed, the route will link up with existing roads to provide a continuous road between Lashkar Gah and Garesk, the two main trading areas in central Helmand

Although Royal Engineers have been able to use the construction techniques developed in phase one, it has been extremely challenging to extend the route.

“In the first mile of this route we have installed 11 culverts,” says Staff Sergeant Graham of 21 Engineer Regiment HQ and Support Squadron, who is the site foreman for the northern extension of Route Trident.

“That coupled with high insurgent activity means that the project is severely delayed.”

Route Trident Phase 2 extension was due for completion in August but latest estimates suggest it will be October. Although the Army is leading the construction, they rely on local Afghan contractors to complete the work.

“We simply don’t have the plant or manpower to be able to construct this on our own,” adds Graham.

The mantra is if local Afghans work on their road, money goes directly into the local community and they can see the benefits and help maintain the route.

The Taliban have successfully scared at least one local contractor off site by shooting at the workers and damaging their equipment.

In order to show local contractors what they want constructed, engineers have been using Google Sketch to produce simple 3D drawings. Soldiers have said it works well, is quick and gets the job done.

At Garesk, the route will link up with Highway 1, the main ring road in Afghanistan, which links up with Kandahar, Kabul and beyond.

Camp Bastion

Camp Bastion is the main operating base for UK forces in Afghanistan, and the Army is hard at work upgrading the site. It is a vast site, with a 35km perimeter wall, and measures about 4km by 4km, a similar size to Portsmouth.

All of the British Army’s engineering input in Afghanistan, including the Helmand PRT, is directed through the UK Works Group RE, currently commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Andy Szabo. Bastion is undergoing a huge upgrade, turning it from a relatively small camp only housing British soldiers, to the main hub incorporating US, Afghan and ISAF troops.

The camp is split into various parts Bastion 0-3, used by British forces, Camp Leatherneck,
and the Afghan sector. It also houses a huge number of local and international civilian

Key UK-led projects are constructing new aircraft parking cells, an air traffic control centre and new logistics buildings. This is in support of a new runway constructed by the US, which will replace the current runway, already operating at full capacity and handling more air movements than London Luton.
In a similar manner to the Helmand PRT, RE has its own team of Specialist Team Royal Engineers (STRE) within Bastion to work on projects. The projects operate on a more Western-style basis however, with the participating companies a range of local Afghan and international contractors.

The Planning Construction Team scrutinise the plans for value for money and decides whether it’s key to developing operational capabilities. If suitable, then the money is approved, either locally or
for projects over $1M, which get the green light from Permanent Joint Headquarters, back in the UK.
In Bastion, the Army uses two private companies alongside the STRE-KBR and Turner Facilities Management, who are embedded in the force to deliver projects.

Captain Ian Murison, works contracts officer, is responsible for getting value for money on the projects. “I have a list of 16 pre-approved contractors who can carry out the work,” he says.

“Depending on the work we target different contractors but we want to stimulate competition to achieve value for money.”

The works group is responsible for projects ranging from ordering a new toilet block
up to the £22M Equipment Stores Cell. Bigger projects are designed in house, either by the Royal Engineers, Turner or KBR, and tendered through fixed price contracts.

It is then the contractor’s responsibility to source the materials - no simple task. Materials are either transported by sea via Pakistan, where convoys are quite often attacked en route, or in an emergency by air. The Army is currently trialling a railhead to Kabul to mixed success.

Local Intelligence

Nahr-e-Saraj, in the Helmand valley area is very fertile through irrigation from the Helmand River in the south and a canal system to the north.

The 20-30,000 population is made up mainly of farming families living in housing compounds of 8-10 people.

USAID-funded irrigation projects in the 1950s-1970s were built in an effort to persuade the population to reject communism. This ultimately failed with Soviet occupation beginning in 1978, followed by the Mujahadeen, the Taliban and now NATO forces.

The area is a micro-economy with global influences, namely the global prices of wheat and heroin.

The opium poppy is the main cash crop grown in the area, and is popular with farmers because it offers a consistent price; crude laboratories are used to convert the active ingredient of the poppy progressively into opium, morphine and diamorphine, in other words heroin.

Coalition forces have encouraged wheat growing as an alternative, however the price fluctuates. Other crops grown are corn and marsh, a black lentil popular in the area.

The water irrigation is controlled by “mirabs”, traditionally local masters of water distribution, who are prone to corruption when insurgents extract revenue to control the water flow.

International and Afghan forces must persuade the local population that their work helping local conditions is permanent- the police centre and route Trident are key parts of this assurance programme.

There is reported to be vast amounts of minerals in Afghanistan that could help to improve the country’s living standards.

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