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DoD News Briefing with Col. Bulen at the Pentagon

Presenters: Commander, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghanistan Engineer District Col. William Bulen
June 29, 2007
            (Note: Colonel Bulen appears via video teleconference from Afghanistan.) 
 
            BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): Good morning. Good afternoon. It looks like we have good audio and video coming from Kabul today. 
 
            Let me just make sure that Colonel Bulen can hear me okay. Colonel, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon, with the Pentagon press corps. How are you today? 
 
            COL. BULEN: Great. I can hear you loud and clear. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Good. We need to work just a little bit on our audio on this end, but we will do that.   
 
            This is Colonel William Bulen, who is the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Afghanistan Engineer District. Colonel Bulen and his team of civilian and military personnel are providing engineering and construction services throughout Afghanistan to U.S. and coalition forces, as well as the Afghan national security forces.   
 
            Colonel Bulen's been in Afghanistan now since about August of last year. And as I indicated, he is speaking to us today from Kabul. And he's going to give you a brief overview of what he has been doing and the efforts that they've been making there and then has agreed to take some of your questions. 
 
            So with that, Colonel Bulen, let me turn it over to you. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Well, thank you.   
 
            Good morning. It's always a privilege to be able to talk to the great program we've got here. As he said, I'm Colonel Bill Bulen. I'm the commander of the Afghan Engineer District. I've been in country almost 12 months. 
 
            Since the Corps came to Afghanistan with a small contingent in 2002, we have executed almost $2 billion worth of contracts and managed the construction of over a thousand structures and 11,000 kilometers of road. Just FY '07, we'll be awarding over $1.8 billion in construction projects. This is almost equal to the previous four years we've done here in construction in Kabul. 
 
            The contracts are awarded and managed under four major areas. These areas are the Afghan national security force; military, MILCON work; border management and counternarcotics; and strategic reconstruction. 
 
            Each of these areas are vital to when you talk about providing an environment for stability and reconstruction of this war-torn region. 
 
            The Afghan national security forces are comprised of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police Force. There are four programs when you talk about the Afghan national security force. They are the manning, training, and equipping, and the fourth one, which AED is involved with, is the facilities. They're a 70,000-man army and an 82,000-man police force. 
 
            To date, we have managed and completed assembly of almost nine ANA brigades, with five more on the way coming in the next couple years. Each of these facilities are equipped like a small city for 3,500 soldiers. Each is outfitted with over a hundred buildings for billeting, admin, dining, power generation, vehicle maintenance and a medical facility. 
 
            The police program -- it's about three years behind that of the Afghan National Army. The previous four years, we've done about $200 million worth of ANP construction. This year alone, we're going to be doing over $700 million in AN construction projects. 
 
            Our MILCON program for this year should be over $200 million, with the majority of that work at Bagram Air Base. 
 
            Our third major program is the counternarcotics and border management. This program for this FY will be around $87 million. 
 
            And our last program is reconstruction, covers a lot of areas. For this FY, we hope to be awarding close to $750 million of projects. Our customers include foreign countries, USAID, the coalition forces and CERP projects for the PRTs. The majority of this money, though, will be going to roads for the next couple years. 
 
            Another area we support but don't manage the funding and contract award, is to provide engineering services to the provincial reconstruction teams, PRTs. The Corps of Engineers embeds two civilians with each of these PRTs to provide them technical expertise to projects needed in rural communities and to villages. 
 
            Although our primary function is executing contracts and managing the construction to ensure that we meet the high standards we set in this country, we also want to do everything possible to help build engineering capacity for the people of Afghanistan. We teach them, we mentor them through every aspect of the construction process. 
 
            We see the capacity growing each year. The past month over 15,000 Afghans who have been working on AED projects; this translates into 87 percent of all workers on AED projects for Afghanistan.   
 
            We aid potential contractors through open houses that teaches them the administrative portion of working with the corps. Just two years ago, on an average, only three Afghan contractors submitted proposals for each of our contract solicitations; a year later, that number quadrupled to 13. This past April, we had over 41 Afghan contractors bid on one solicitation. Seventy percent of all AED contracts are awarded to Afghans and Afghan-owned companies. Mentoring, I think, is our living legacy, our drive and our passion when dealing with these contractors and the Afghan people. 
 
            I would like to close with significant challenges remain in Afghanistan, but we continue to make progress. It is important to remember that Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. If you compare it to Iraq, Afghanistan is a third larger than Iraq, and it also has 20 percent more people than Iraq. Where there's weakness and deprivation, people at risk because terrorists can move in and lawless can prevail to hold a nation hostage, it is only through committed development that Afghanistan can proceed, gain strength and serve the needs of its people. I have seen a difference, a huge difference in the year that I have been here. The Afghan workers whom I have met, from labor to quality assurance inspector to foreman, have commented they want peace and security, a better way of life for themselves and their families. They are committed to doing their best as the build roads, clinics, schools, ANA and ANP projects for us. 
 
            If I could only leave you with 10 words, this is what I'd say. In Afghanistan, where reconstruction exists, security, commerce and governance thrive. 
 
            At this time I'll open the floor for questions. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for that. And we'll get right into it with Pam. 
 
            Q     Sir, this is Pam Hess with United Press International. Could you give us details on two major projects? First, the Ring Road. How far have you gone? How much further do you have to go? What towns are now included in it? And what problems are you coming up against in completing it? And in the south there's this major offensive operation to set the conditions where you-all can start a water project, and I was wondering if you could tell us what that's all about, how much it will cost, what it will accomplish. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Okay. In reference to Ring Road, I think we developed a national campaign last fall where we work with the government of Afghanistan, USAID and other countries. What it is is we develop the Ring Road and the connector roads, and then the purpose was to connect the Ring Road to the provincial centers -- which if you look at the country of Afghanistan like the United States, the provincial centers are like your state capitals -- and then from the provincial centers to the district centers, which is like the cities. That was the campaign plan we developed. We've estimated it would take about $2.4 billion. 
 
            When you start looking at the Ring Road, that's going to be developed by donor countries. I think about 80 percent of it right now is -- I'm going to say 60 percent of it is completed. There's another 20 or 30 percent right now that is being constructed by the World Food Bank, the Saudis, the Japanese. There's probably another 10 percent or so that still needs to be constructed. I don't see any problem with donor countries coming in and doing that. 
 
            Where we're focusing on is, particularly in the south and the east for the coalition forces, is connecting the provincial centers to the district centers. Our reference to the Kajaki dam up there, what we're doing is we're putting in -- the USAID, they're doing that, increasing the turbine capacity there to deal with the power in the Helmand Valley and the Kandahar city. 
 
            Q     Would you tell us how far along you are connecting the provincial, the district centers to the Ring Road, and also tell us how far along and how much this dam project will cost? 
 
            COL. BULEN: I don't know the specifics on the dam project, but we have just started awarding projects over the last year, year-and-a- half. So it takes about a year, two years to develop that. I will say we're probably about 20 percent as far as committed with funding for the road campaign, if you look at the $2.3 billion. And we're looking at probably putting in another $500 (million) or $600 million this year, when the supplemental funds come through in August.  
 
            Q     And I'm sorry. Just one more quick follow-up: How many provincial centers and district centers have been connected so far with that money?   
 
            COL. BULEN: I couldn't answer that as far as -- like, most of the provincial centers are connected with some kind of rural road. The standard for the roads are six meters wide with a meter-and-a-half shoulder. So a lot of that will be widen it, straightening them, going in, putting culverts, bridges, retaining walls and so forth. So we're improving those roads.   
 
            Some of the district centers out in the remote areas, you're looking at trails that you can barely get a humvee through or a motorcycle. And in some communities, we have to take a -- like, we're doing some well projects where we actually have to get the materials in the back of “mules” or something like that. So it's very difficult to tell you the percentage right now of what's been connected. But there's -- probably about a third of it's been funded and underway, and we've probably got about two-thirds more to go.   
 
            Q     Thank you.   
 
            Q     Colonel, Paul Krawzak, Copley News Service.   
 
            You said, since you've been there, you've seen a huge difference with the Afghans, said they want peace and security. Could you elaborate a little bit on what kind of difference you've seen?   
 
            COL. BULEN: Well, just talking with the contractors, when you start working with them, they get a confidence that, you know, you are working. Particularly in the communities, they start opening up to you. When you first go into a community, they're kind of hesitant about what you're there for. You meet them, get to know them; you bring them into the projects.   
 
            One of the things, too, is, all the contractors are required to link up with the PRTs, provincial reconstruction teams, let them know what projects they're doing, linking up with the locals, telling them, this is the project; we need to hire your locals. And then also we hire them, the locals, for the security.   
 
            So once you start seeing that, then you see the community start taking ownership of the project. They kind of protect it and so forth. If you don't have community buy into the projects, then it's very difficult to get them constructed, particularly out in the remote areas.   
 
            But just meeting the people, seeing the -- like, the schools we put in there, the children -- some of the communities never had girls going to school. You start to see the girls going to school. So there's a big difference in just talking to them about how we feel about, you know, there's now a jingle truck in their community where before they couldn't ever get it across the bridge.   
 
            Or working with the commerce, you see so many things on the road just from here to Bagram.   
 
            There was about two miles of stretch there. There was hardly any construction. This year there's a gas station, a store or a business -- there's something just popping up all over the place. So if you haven't been here, it's kind of like a snapshot in time. But if you look at it as a movie, it is developing slowly, but you do see a big difference in where we were today versus two or three years ago. 
 
            Q     If I could just follow up, you're talking about the enthusiasm to build these projects. How much of a challenge is it to train the Afghans to maintain them? Are you having trouble having the projects, the construction maintained after it’s built? 
 
            COL. BULEN: Yes, we are. One of the things, too, is we've got to be careful. We can't build to American standards, we've got to build more to their standards. I call it boning it down to make it simple. But that is something that we're working right now. We've got -- with NWRs we're kind of setting up -- excuse me -- like facility engineers, like we have in the States, for each of the bases. We're kind of setting them up, and we're trying to train the Afghans to go in there and maintain and operate their equipment. But it's very difficult. It's kind of unique. 
 
            I remember when I first got here, I was up at, I think, it was a Khost PRT, actually the brigade, and we kept getting rocks clogged up in the sewage system. And I said, my God, why are we getting so many rocks clogged up in the sewer system? Well, it turns out that's how they wipe. So we're bringing guys in from the field, and they're bringing rocks in there, and that's the kind of thing here. So you've got to teach them first how to use the equipment, the new facilities, and you've also got to teach them how to maintain them. And it's been a slow process, but it is working.  I think once you get a good site manager at each of the locations, and it makes a big difference. But it's a slow process, it's something we've got to work on. 
 
            We've got a system right now in place for the Afghan National Army. We're slowly getting one awarded, so we start constructing all these ANP sites, the Afghan National Police; we're getting that -- going to be onboard. And I think we're in discussion with USAID how we maintain these roads once we get them all constructed. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Al. 
 
            Q     Colonel, getting back to your 10 words that you want us to come away with, you seem to indicate -- I think what you said was that where there's security, the economy and the other things thrive. But we've also heard the opposite, that development is essential in order to really bring long-term security. So how do you see the interaction between those two factors? 
 
            (Pause for technical difficulties.) 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Colonel, this is Bryan Whitman. Can you hear me? 
 
            COL. BULEN:  Yes, I can hear you loud and clear. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Very good. Sorry for the interruption there, but actually, we had a very good question so I'm going to ask Al to repeat it again here. 
 
            Q     Colonel, this is Al Pessin from the Voice of America. I think in your 10 words you were saying that where there's security, then development and the economy thrive. But we've also heard it the other way, that development is essential for establishing security, especially in the long term. How do you see the interaction between the two? 
 
            COL. BULEN: I think we've got to work hand in hand. 
 
            I think -- I use this chart that I show, winning the middle ground. We come in there with kinetic forces, and then what we do is -- we have no problem in that area, taking care of it from the kinetic side.  
 
            Once we establish initial security, then we bring our PRTs in. And I think the PRT commanders sit down with the locals and leadership and say, "Okay, what are the projects you need," whether they're roads, schools, clinics, wells. And then we also start bringing in the Afghan national security force, whether it's the police station or a ANA unit. And then pretty soon, I think, the locals start getting the presence that "Hey, I think the government of Afghanistan is here to make a difference." So I call that winning the middle ground. So I think it all has to be played out together. 
 
            Q     Just to follow up -- 
 
            COL. BULEN: (Off mike) -- is the key, because I think the average person -- like when I first got here -- go on. 
 
            Q     (Off mike) -- go ahead and finish. Then I'll ask my follow-up. 
 
            COL. BULEN: I -- when I first got here, one of the articles I -- hello?   
 
            MR. WHITMAN: We're a little out of sync here, colonel. We want you to finish your answer, if you could, starting with when you first got there. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Okay. When I first got here last summer, one of the comments I heard from the south was that the folks out in the regions didn't think we were much different than the Soviets. And I was kind of set back by that.   
 
            And then after I started touring the country and being out, particularly in some of these remote areas, I realized where that comment came from. When I drive down one of these roads that we're getting ready to construct -- actually construct the road or actually put in an ANA site, when I drive back that road, it's like driving back in time. I mean, like -- you look at some of these villages, the valleys, there's 10(,000) to 20,000 people living up in these valleys, and they're living the same way they have 2(00) to 300 years ago. The only reason I know it's in the 21st century is I might see a high-low truck or a motorcycle, or I'll see a satellite dish and hear a generator. Other than that, these folks are probably living the exact same way they've done 200 years ago.   
 
            So it's very difficult to get even our coalition forces back there, but also to get the commerce. And when you don't see a jingle truck, which is the way they move stuff around; when you can't get a jingle truck back into a community, it's kind of difficult to start having development in that community. 
 
            So I think when you start looking at what we're trying to do with the roads in some of the ANA and AP sites, we're going to have to at least get it so we can get back in there. And then we start developing it through the PRTs with small, little projects. Then we start bringing in the bigger stuff with the ANA and AP programs. 
 
            Q     I just wanted to follow up. You know, in the Iraq context, we hear a lot about clear, hold and build, or clear, hold and retain, whatever way you want to put it. 
 
            Are there enough Afghan troops with enough competence to maintain a presence in these areas, and enough development folks to follow through on these projects? Or are you facing some of the challenges like they faced in Iraq in the past, where you make some progress in an area but then when you move on, the Taliban moves back in?   
 
            COL. BULEN: We've experienced some of that in the south, some of the things they cleared out last fall that we didn't have the presence; we come in there. But something started developing a couple months ago out in the east where the community's starting to throw the Taliban out. When they come into the community, they basically said, we don't want you here. Some of them were killed and they were pushed out.   
 
            So I think the key is, if the people feel that there is going to be a difference, the government is there to stay, then I think they will stand up for themselves. Because these are very local, tribunal-type communities. A good example of that was last fall on the Khost project. I had 13 rocket attacks on the project in three weeks. I went out there with a maneuver commander and the PRT commander.   
 
            I said, we've got to get this to stop. I need you to talk to the communities. I'll talk to the contractor, because they were getting ready to walk off site. They had a meeting with the community. And basically I didn't have another rocket attack on that project for four months, because they knew who the guy was, driving around in the pickup truck firing the rockets.   
 
            So this is a little different than Iraq. These communities we're working in, they've known each other for years, and it's a very tribunal-type system. So if you get them to buy off on what you're trying to do in the country, I think we're going to be on a road to recovery.   
 
            Q     Sir, from what you're saying, it sounds like the roads are actually key to this, and you alluded to it earlier. Can you just give a little more detail on how many kilometers of roads you're building and maybe the cost of it? And how do you intend to get these trails and riverbeds that are serving as the roadways now into, like, the 21st century for that?   
 
            COL. BULEN: I'm kind of light on specifics on exactly the number of kilometers and so forth. We've awarded roughly around $3 (hundred million) to $400 million in roads this past year. USAID's doing some projects. We have other government agencies coming in here, so I don't have the big picture on what's being -- we do have a focus on what we're doing there in the East.   
 
            We're probably looking at roughly around $500 million this year. You're probably looking at another 500 to 900 kilometers. It depends on what type of roads. We're looking at $350 million in MILCON roads. Basically those are roads we've identified that we want to pave. I think it's critical to our maneuver forces, particularly the ones we drive on a reocurring basis to get those things paved.   
 
            A good example is the Jalalabad to Asadabad road. We paved it two years ago. Prior to that, getting it paved, we had 22 IED attacks in a six-month period. Since we've paved that road in May of `05, we've had one IED strike on that road and that was on the shoulder, so it is a big difference when we can pave some of these roads. So we've identified about 10 or 12 roads we're looking at this year that we're going to go in and pave, particularly out in the eastern area, folks are running around. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Carl. 
 
            Q     Colonel, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review. Could you talk a little bit about the work you're doing in counternarcotics and border control, because it seems to me that these -- in these areas are the two largest challenges that Afghanistan faces. And so I'm wondering what you're doing in these areas and how effective are they. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Okay. For the border management, we're constructing border crossing sites, and we're going to look at -- I think there's 13 of them going in, and I think that's critical for the government of Afghanistan. The numbers are about ballpark, but think the government of Afghanistan operates on about $800 million. Of that, about $300 million is donated. If we can control these border crossing sites, it's estimated we can bring in over another $500 to $600 million of income to the Afghan government. So I think it's critical that we put some border crossings to bring the funds in for the country of Afghanistan. 
 
            When you're looking at the counternarcotics program, I'm not involved with the details on -- we're basically not here to eradicate poppies. When you drive around there, you see them all over the place, and that's not our mission. But what I've been focusing on is there's four regional centers we're putting up in each of the regions -- Northeast, South and West -- and in Kabul, I'm working on two projects. We're working on a training facility, and then we're also working on the judicial center. We'll have about 30, 40-man jail and it'll also have a -- what you call like a courthouse to be able to prosecute. 
 
            So those are the six projects I'm working on for the counternarcotics. But as far as the details of where we're going with that program, I wouldn't know. 
 
            Q     Sir, it's Pam Hess again. Could you tell us -- you gave us statistics earlier -- 87 percent of all the workers are Afghans. Do you know how much money has been pumped into the Afghan economy of the amount that you guys have spent? 
 
            COL. BULEN: That's kind of difficult. I couldn't give you a percentage. But one of the things, I think, when you talk about organizations that are doing reconstruction is the question you've got to ask them is: How many of those contracts are going to Afghan, Afghan-owned firms, because at least the overhead, the profit stays in the country. A lot of countries, the bigger firms, outside of Afghanistan, the overhead and the profit is leaving the country. That's -- I will tell you, a lot more stays in country when you have an Afghan or Afghan-owned company that is providing -- (audio break). 
 
            I couldn't give you that right now. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Andrew. 
 
            Q     Colonel, this is Andrew Gray from Reuters here. You mentioned that there's a lot of different agencies involved in reconstruction and development work. When you were talking about the Ring Road, that's obviously being funded by donors. You mentioned USAID. How is the coordination between all the different groups, including your own, in reconstruction work? And could anything be done to improve that? 
 
            COL. BULEN: That's critical. I think like when we developed the national road campaign, that was kind of like the first thing. It's kind of hard to get donor countries to come into here if you don't really have a master plan on saying these are my top 10 priorities, can we get someone to come in and volunteer, a donor, to construct these projects. So we developed that plan last year. I think like there's an electrical program being developed.   
 
            You know, only 7 percent of the population has electricity here. That's amazing. How do you even function without electricity in a society? A lot of our focus on electricity is the micro-hydro projects. We're putting in about 60 projects in the eastern region, where we're basically -- we start channeling the water upstream. When we get about three to six meters of elevation, then based on the volumes and the flow, we determine the size of the generator or the turbine, and we're putting these micro-hydro projects out in the remote areas. Renewable sources that are working very good. But just like water, I think that's critical for agriculture, all these different programs have to be developed.   
 
            We are working with ISAF. I think that's what needs to be done. I've got my GIS folks over there helping them develop databases, because there's hundreds of little projects when you look at schools, clinics, wells, that are going on outside of what the coalition forces or even ISAF is doing.   
 
            So ISAF is the right place. They're developing a database. Right now they've got over 45,000 lines on it. And basically what we hope is any region, particularly out in the PRTs -- if a PRT commander wants to know what's going on in his district or province, we should be able to pull it up and say, okay, these are the projects, and layer it basically by saying this is what 82 is doing, this is what CSTC-A is doing, this is what the NGOs are doing, this is what USAID is doing. So we're in the process of developing that now, but it needs to be done through ISAF. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, colonel, we have reached the end of our time that we've allocated for this, but we appreciate you taking the time this afternoon. This has been very interesting and informative to us. Before I bring it to a close, though, let me turn it back to you in case you have any final comments you'd like to make. 
 
            COL. BULEN: No, I think we've got a great program. It's kind of like we kind of think this is a forgotten war over here when you look at the press you guys put out.  
 
            But are we are doing a great job, and this is a very winnable war, and just as long as we get the people's support, I think we'll be fine. But it is truly a good-news story, and I'd like to see more news on it, because when you're out there and you see a community thriving or kids going to school, it makes a big difference. Some of the most rewarding times I've had is when I'm at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a school or clinic, and you see all these young kids and you realize that's the future of Afghanistan. Some of them have never been to school before, and we're setting that up. So we are making a difference here, and I think as long as we hold the course, I think we'll be fine in the near future. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: Well, thank you for helping us bring some visibility to the efforts that are going on there, and perhaps before you leave, we can do this again so we can get another update, too. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Sure. If you happen -- my change of command's on 9 July, so if you want me to do it again, I'd be more than happy to. 
 
            Thank you. (Inaudible.) 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: (Off mike) -- take you back here in the States right here in person in the Pentagon. How's that? 
 
            COL. BULEN: Okay. I can do that. 
 
            MR. WHITMAN: I sense the enthusiasm. (Laughs.) Well, thank you very much, colonel, and safe travels as you come home. 
 
            COL. BULEN: Well, thank you.
 
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