DoD News Briefing with Col. Thomas O'Donovan at the Pentagon Briefing Room, Arlington Va.
COLONEL GARY KECK (director, Department of Defense Press Office): Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the briefing room. I'm Colonel Gary Keck, the director of the Press Office. And most of you here all know me. And I appreciate you indeed attending.
We have with us today the privilege of having Colonel Tom O'Donovan, who is the commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghanistan Engineer District. And Colonel O'Donovan has been in Afghanistan since June of last year. And he's been working closely with the U.S. and coalition forces and Afghan national security forces.
His Corps of Engineer district provides project management and engineering support in the Central Asian republics to facilitate establishment of a secure and stable environment while promoting reconstruction and infrastructure development.
This is Colonel O'Donovan's first time speaking to us here live in the briefing room. And we appreciate him making time.
With that, I'll turn it over to Colonel O'Donovan. Tom?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Well, good morning. I am Tom O'Donovan.
I am the commander of the Afghanistan Engineer District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It really is a great pleasure to be with you today, not just because I appreciate the opportunity to hear your questions about what interests you about Afghanistan, but I'm also on my way home this evening for my first R&R since June of last summer. So I am truly excited to be here in the Pentagon.
Listen, my mission and that of my organization is to provide construction support where funded for all of central Asia. So I run from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan all the way down to Pakistan. But 95-or- more percent of my work is in Afghanistan, so my headquarters is in Kabul, and that's where the majority of my folks are, is in Afghanistan.
We are the build portion. We like to view ourselves as the build portion in the clear, shape -- or shape, clear, hold, build approach. We have a role in all of those, in the shape, clear, hold and build paradigm. And we also -- we like to phrase ourselves as the strategic non-kinetic weapon of choice. We are -- we are doing an immense amount of work across the country, and I'm going to tell you a little bit about it.
As far as my folks on the ground, I'm at 370 strong right now. We are all volunteers. All of my people working in Afghanistan can go home if they don't like what they're doing, and that includes the military folks. I have about 70 military. They are not deployed in the normal unit rotations right now. They're all volunteers through a variety of programs and come to us to help us do our mission there. So it's a very interesting organization that we're leading there, and a very important mission that we're working on.
We're working in several key areas, and I'll kind of sketch them out for you, and then I'm interested in your questions on which ones you want to take a look at in more detail.
First of all, as Carl mentioned, we're working to support the Afghan National Security Forces. That's both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. The Afghan National Army is our older program, started in 2004, and has been continuous since that time, building a large number of facilities across Afghanistan to support them. These include hospitals, training bases, logistics facilities, barracks, dining facilities, maintenance -- the list goes on and on. As you can imagine, to support an army dedicated to developing democracy takes a large number of facilities to keep it going.
We're also working hard to develop the plans for the expansion of the Afghan National Army and the construction that that will require into the future.
For the Afghan National Police, we've got over 300 Afghan National Police facilities under construction right now throughout every district and province within Afghanistan, and we'll have more coming on later.
Let me talk about the financial aspects of what I just laid out. We'll put in -- for the Afghan National Police, we've already built about $2 billion worth of -- I'm sorry, for the ANSF together, about $2 billion so far, and then we'll do 1.2 billion (dollars) in '09 for the Afghan National Security Forces. So a lot of work there.
For U.S. and coalition forces, our other big mission area, primarily we've been working in the Bagram area. We've got about $650 million of construction going on there right now, being run by our area office there.
With the expansion of U.S. forces into RC South, we've now begun to expand our capability in the district to support that construction. We've got about $411 million worth of contracts we'll let -- have let or will let in the next few weeks, to support that expansion. And then we're headed to probably a billion to a billion-and-a-half dollars, depending on what the final allocations are, for work to support the U.S. forces going into RC South.
We also do work for counternarcotics, border management initiative, and support for others. This is work to provide facilities on the borders to allow better control of flow of trades goods in and out of Afghanistan. So, for example, we're building border control points on the border with Tajikistan at a bridge crossing that the district built back in 2007, putting in the ability for both sides to control the flow of goods and monitor the flow of goods across the border.
We're also working in strategic reconstruction, which this is roads, water infrastructure and operations like that. This includes 1,200 kilometers of roads we have under construction right now, and we have an additional four (hundred) to 600 kilometers of roads that'll open up -- that construction will begin in 2009.
Roads, as you know, are a critical aspect of the shape-clear- hold-build approach, as you work to move development, security and governance into the provinces across Afghanistan. So roads is a critical area, and also one of the toughest areas that we work in. It's very clear to us that the enemy, who has attacked us quite a bit over this last year on our roads projects, has decided that these roads are a threat to them, and so we continue to face those challenges and work to continue to construct roads into those areas.
Overall, our district has executed about 6.5 billion (dollars) through contracts since our work started in 2004. We have 3 billion (dollars) that we'll contract in '09, and we have about 1.5 billion (dollars) of actual construction that will be accomplished in '09. So '09 will be the largest year the district has ever had, working in those areas that I just laid out for you.
Then in '10, depending on final fiscal allocations and prioritizations, we'll do somewhere between 4 (billion dollars) to $6 billion worth of work in '10. So you can see, a very large program for 370 people to be running.
In the long term, beyond FY '10, we're looking at the importance of water for Afghanistan. Week after next, when I come back off of R&R, I'll be escorting the deputy minister of energy and water to conferences with the Corps of Engineers, to talk about long-term involvement of the corps and other inter-agency partners in helping to address the water challenges of Afghanistan.
Now, it's a critical area, but a very developmental area. There is significant donor funding available to support water construction in Afghanistan, but there's a lot of work that has to be done before those donor dollars can be spent, and spent effectively.
As you know, water resources is a major mission for the Corps of Engineers in the United States, and we want to bring that expertise on water to Afghanistan. And so we're beginning to plant the seeds now of how we're going to do that, how we're going to apply that expertise to address what we view as one of the critical long-term issues in Afghanistan, and we're going to see how that -- see how that works out.
So with that, there's a couple -- there's a couple opening comments for you, and I'm interested in what you're interested in.
Q Colonel, Dave Wood from The Baltimore Sun. Could you talk about the Ring Road and whether that's finished, and if not, where you have -- what you have left to do, if you're working on that? And also, do you employ Afghans? And if so, how many? And I'd just like to know a bit more about that.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Sure. Yeah, we'll take them in the reverse order, if we could. We are a very large employer of Afghans in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of our contracts go directly to Afghan firms, and about 95 percent of our funds actually make it all the way to Afghan firms as they work their way down the subcontractor chain.
Q I'm sorry; say that again?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Seventy percent of our contracts go directly to Afghan firms; 30 percent go to other type firms, international or U.S. And of those funds, of both the 70 and the 30, 95 percent of it make it to Afghan companies as they come down through subcontractors to those U.S. and international firms.
We keep track through our primes and our subs on how many Afghans they're employing on a daily basis. We run about 18,000 Afghans employed during the construction season. We believe it makes us the larger -- largest employer of Afghans in Afghanistan other than the government of Afghanistan. USAID challenges our numbers on that every once in a while. That's good; competition makes for strength. But we are a very significant economic power.
We run about 45 to 60 percent, depending on what studies you read, of the overall construction industry in Afghanistan is employed by the Corps of Engineers. So that's a very large impact.
So we do -- additionally, we employ Afghans in the Corps, also. We hire local national quality assurance people to go out to projects that we have challenges getting to because of the security situation. They go out and visit those projects for us, bring back pictures and reports, and then we integrate those into our overall quality assurance processes for our projects. It helps us keep our projects going well.
Now, the Ring Road -- and for those of you -- I'm sure you're very familiar with this -- essentially the road that goes all the way around Afghanistan, around the mountains, up and over the spine of the Hindu Kush. The project is not complete. There are still areas of the Ring Road up in the far northwest that are still being developed and still being worked. The Corps of Engineers is not doing those projects. We don't currently have any projects on the Ring Road except some reconnaissance work going on down in RC South that may lead to projects down the line.
USAID is working a 1,500-kilometer operations and maintenance contract, a very large contract, to maintain the portions that run essentially from Kabul out towards Farah, so basically the southeast half of the ring road. And that's a very important contract for us, because that road -- the maintenance of that road allows our contractors to bring their logistics in, to build the facilities that we're building.
Q Sir, it's probably a simple question. But why are such these construction projects -- the roads, the water systems -- why is it so important, as far as a counterterrorism strategy, to improve the lives of the Afghans? How is that going to help us to eventually, you know, discredit the Taliban and the al Qaeda?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, absolutely. There's a couple different -- there's a couple different reasons why it's so important.
First of all, as you know, ISAF and General McKiernan's overall approach is development, governance, security and these sorts of things. And roads and other infrastructure are absolutely underpinnings of all of those.
You can't get security into an area if you can't get into the area. And the facilities we're building for the ANSF; you can't provide security in an area if you don't have someone to provide that security. They have to have a facility to launch from.
Now, we've changed our strategies a little bit on the facilities construction. We were building facilities in '06 and '07 that were designed for an organization essentially at peace.
Well, that hasn't turned out to be the case. And so we're now changing our facility design philosophy a little bit, to build more temporary facilities, to allow a larger expansion of the Afghan army, establish a security and the perhaps over the long term reduce that army back down, you know, maybe.
So you have to have the construction of these type things to be able to underpin security, development and governance. All of those aspects require that.
Q Water projects, what types of water projects, and why are they so critical?
COL. O'DONOVAN: The ministry of energy and water has laid out basically three types of projects -- essentially small, medium and large -- in the areas of both irrigation and multi-purpose. So irrigation is number one for them. And by the way, this is not the first time the United States has worked with the Afghans to develop water resources in Afghanistan.
In the '50s, '60s and '70s, we established an organization called the KVA, the -- I'm sorry, HVA, the Helmand Valley Authority, modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority. Same kind of approach: Built several dams with integrated hydropower and irrigation aspects to it. Had a lot of challenges in that time frame that really illustrate the difficulties of doing water construction and water management in Afghanistan.
But they're looking at projects that are multi-purpose, designed to provide irrigation and then secondary purposes of flood control, hydropower, silt management, bank erosion control, these sorts of things; very important work.
Q Thank you, sir.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah.
Q Can you expand a little bit? You mention that you have counternarcotic missions. What exactly are you doing in that --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Sure.
We're building facilities to support various portions of the counternarcotics community, as they work to develop the organizations to do their mission. So for example, we're building logistics facilities to support the DEA for example. Or we're building facilities to support the Afghan Marshal Service, the AMS, or the special investigating unit.
All these organizations require facilities, for them to do their work, headquarters facilities, logistics facilities, maintenance facilities, detention facilities, judicial facilities, these sorts of things.
So we're building a wide variety of those across the country.
Q Where are those primarily or where are the large facilities located that you're -- (off mike)?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Kabul are the ones that we're building right now. We have several facilities in Kabul we're building. And then secondarily we're building up in the north, those kinds of things. We haven't -- we haven't yet started in the south side. We're kind of working our way -- working our way towards that.
Q And you also mentioned a border mission. Is that primarily building Afghan police facilities, or is there anything beyond that? Can you talk a little more about that?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, great question. Two types of border facilities we're building: First is for the Border Police, a portion of the Afghan National Police program. So we're building border facilities, barracks, clinics, these kinds of things so that the Border Police have a place to live while they do their mission and then building the command and control and logistics facilities required to support those Border Police and then zone command headquarters and these sorts of things.
And then for the Border Management Initiative and for the -- those type folks, we're building the facilities that are also required to support their personnel. So kind of two groups of people; we're building the facilities for both of them.
Q Are they primarily on the border in the south of -- the -- with Pakistan along the southern part of Afghanistan?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Well, the Border Police facilities are all the way around. And if you take a look in your packet, you'll see a map that shows -- that shows all the facilities all the way around that we're building. In fact, we have 300 overall police facilities that we're building.
By the way, when we say a facility, we're not talking a police station, you know, a single building. We're talking an integrated facility, multiple buildings, water wells, dining facilities, those kind of things, with a security perimeter around it to make it sustainable.
So if you take a look at the map, it looks like -- sorry -- take the map that looks like that one, you'll see where the facilities are for all the Afghan National Police we're building. The ones that are actually on the border are the Border Police facilities.
Q And can I ask one more, actually?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Go ahead.
Q What's the Army Corps of Engineers' role in the Bagram prison facility? Are you constructing that? Can you talk about where you are --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah. It's not a -- it's not a prison facility. It's a Bagram Theater Internment Facility. And we are the construction agency for that and that project is under construction right now.
Q How far advanced are you -- (inaudible)?
COL. O'DONOVAN: We do, obviously. You know, we're the construction managers and we work towards milestones, that kind of stuff. But this is a pretty sensitive project, and so any real queries you have on that need to go to the deputy undersecretary of Defense for Internment Affairs.
Q I'm Kevin Baron with Stars and Stripes. I wonder if you could describe what it's like on the ground in Afghanistan to someone who's -- you know, an average American, if you pluck them out, on the scale from wilderness to Times Square, what does it look and feel like, walking around Afghanistan?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah.
Q And where do we need to be? What is the goal for how developed we need to make that country before, you know, we can leave or before the security comes and the war is over? What's the end point supposed to be?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, two pretty broad questions. First of all, it looks like the 17th century with cars and cell phones. And I travel a lot through Afghanistan. So they have marvelously beautiful country -- I mean, just stunningly beautiful. It reminds you of New Mexico or Utah or those kinds of areas.
But it is -- it is a very agricultural country, and it's a country that's been at war for 30 years. The saying goes, you know, it's a third-world country that got bombed back to the fourth world. And they're working their way up. The Afghans are a very hardworking people, and they are determined to lift themselves out of their situation.
Our long-term progress -- from my point of view, we are making progress. Construction is challenging there, and there's a lot of reasons why it's so challenging, but we are very steadily making progress in a wide variety of areas. When you see these facilities finished and you see the people move into them and begin to use them for what they were designed to do, it's a clear, absolutely unequivocal demonstration of how we are making progress.
Q Bryan Bender with the Boston Globe. On the challenge part, I was hoping to maybe draw you out a little bit more on that -- clearly security is a challenge.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Right.
Q I presume some of these projects are in areas that are fairly unstable. How much has the deteriorating security situation affected some of these building projects? Have there been areas where you had a project going where you had to basically put a halt to it, at least for the time being? And then if you could talk a little bit about, more specifically, RC-South, you mentioned that you're going to be doing more work there to support the U.S. troops.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah. And by the way, we're on a little time constraint today, because I know there's a follow-on brief. So if any of you want to chat for a little bit after this, we can step aside and do it one-on-one. Happy to do that. I have to be at Walter Reed at 12:00 to visit wounded troopers up there, so I've got a little bit of time.
Some of the challenges we face in construction: First of all, the on-site security can be very challenging. If the local insurgent leadership decide that that project is a direct threat to them in some way, they will go after it. Or if the local contractor who didn't get the job doesn't appreciate it, he may go after it, and so on. There's a lot of secondary and third-order security issues that can occur at the site itself.
Next is the movement of logistics to the site. You know, Afghanistan doesn't produce very much in the way of construction materials. So, for example, cement has to come all the way in from Pakistan. Steel has to come in from the north side -- Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, those kinds of places. So materials have to come in from outside the country, as well as fabricated goods like doors and doorknobs and those sorts of things -- all have to come from as far away as China or India and those kinds of places.
So all that has to be moved to the site to actually construct it. Movement of those kinds of logistics is, of course, subject to the challenges that -- of enemy action on the routes to bring them in.
Next, of course, we have a -- we have the challenge of the overall construction market. With -- the construction market has just exploded, in terms of all the different agencies that are doing work there -- USAID, United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, the Corps of Engineers and on and on and on. So that has driven not only the price of goods up but has also absorbed, essentially, the technical capacity of the industry.
In other words, for example, they lost two generations of engineers during those 30 years of war. Those engineers, some of them have come back. Some of them have come back at the head of U.S. firms working in Afghanistan. But nonetheless, the technical capacity is very limited, and so they have -- we have to work our way -- we have to work our way through that.
And then, of course, the other challenge for us is, the Corps of Engineers is only as big as it is. I got 370 people doing $4 billion worth of construction a year. So we have our limits on how much we can oversee a project and get to a project in some of these very, very remote areas, like you see on the map there.
So by the time you add all those challenges together, what you've got is a very challenging situation. Not the first time the Corps has been in this situation. You know, we've been challenged over our 200- plus-year history to do the things we do, and we're working our way through it.
Let's go back to this side.
Q Yeah. Colonel, could we talk to you again about the police? You said you have over 300 police facilities under construction. Out of how many? And did you say one in every district, or --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah.
Q How much of the whole is that, is what I'm getting at.
COL. O'DONOVAN: There will be -- well, facilities is not an easy thing to keep count of, you know, how many facilities, because it depends on how you define what a facility is. But we've got 300 projects under construction right now. There will be another 200 to go in the future.
And then, of course, it's an evolving thing, so there's a very sophisticated, detailed process for the minister of Interior -- Ministry of Interior to sit down with CSTC-A and the other organizations to help them develop their requirements, to look at balancing their funding that they have, both external funding and internal funding, against what their needs are, and then develop their construction requirements. Very close to the same process here done in the Pentagon to determine what the Department of Defense needs for its facilities, balanced against its capabilities to build it and its finances to support it. So, a very -- very similar process.
Q But for the Pentagon we have an idea of how far or what percentage of the job is done. I know that police is under -- being expanded, so I guess it's a moving target. I'm just trying to get a sense of, you know, are there a lot of areas that don't have any police presence and no facilities, that you want to get to, that are planned? And is that part of that 200 you mentioned?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, I would challenge your assertation (sic) that the Department of Defense knows what percent it is in terms of done versus --
Q (Off mike.)
COL. O'DONOVAN: (Laughs.) So it would be similar for the ANP also, because it is an adaptive process.
But I would tell you that we're going to have -- let me chew on that question a little bit, and maybe we can huddle afterwards. But CSTC-A, the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan, would probably be the more definitive experts to answer that, because they have the broader view of everything that's going on.
I'm the builder so, you know, when you turn a builder on to build your sidewalk outside your house and you ask -- your wife asks you what's the percent total complete on fixing the whole house up -- probably not asking the good -- the contractor; probably good to ask the financier of the house work.
Q But you have 300 projects under way.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, 300 --
Q And 200 that you're going to start with in the next years.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Q Can I ask a couple of questions on the detention facility in Bagram?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Uh-huh.
Q So the Army Corps of Engineers is in fact the lead agency on that build, that project, correct?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Absolutely. Yes.
Q Okay. So what is the -- right now the end date, the date of completion, or the proposed or expected?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, and again, as I've said, you've got to take those questions up to the guys, the detention folks.
Q So as the builder of that, which you just told Dave you were the builder --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yes.
Q -- why do I have to -- is that a policy issue?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Because this is an integrated -- this is an integrated project. You know, it's not just building the project; it's the sequencing of the security establishment, the movement of the internees. And all these kind of things all have to be synchronized. So the construction of this is a very small portion of the overall project. So we've got to defer to the guys who have the big picture of all those pieces.
Q We defer that small portion of it, when it's expected to be done? Can you tell me that, at least?
COL. O'DONOVAN: What paper were you with, again?
Q I'm with NBC News.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Okay. Well, you're tough, and I'm not going to budge, all right? (Chuckles.) So -- so we're going to have to more on to another question.
Q Well, going back to the numbers, a little clarification on them. You mentioned like 6.5 billion (dollars) and 4 (billion dollars) to 6 billion (dollars). Is this all -- is that just U.S. funding for Army Corps, or for all construction projects? And what percentage of all construction going on in Afghanistan is the Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S.?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Great question. I'm only talking about funding that comes from Congress to the Corps of Engineers right now. We're not accepting -- we have not accepted any significant funds from any other agencies at this point. We have a small, $7 million program on water infrastructure that we're working with the ministry of energy and water, that we continue to refine. But other than that, all of our funding comes from Congress and is to the Corps of Engineers.
Now, other U.S. agencies that are working construction in Afghanistan -- the big, the other big player is USAID. They're running about a billion to a billion-and-a-half per year; a big operation. They're working, of course, in agriculture and irrigation, infrastructure, energy and these sorts of areas.
The other player is AFCEE, the Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment. We do some work -- I'm the lead design construction agent for Central Asia, so I give some of the work -- when it exceeds my capacity, I share it with AFCEE, and AFCEE comes in and brings their technical expertise to help out. So AFCEE will do about $450 million worth of work in '09 in the RC South expansion area, specifically at a base called Tombstone Bastion Leatherneck. I don't know if you know that base at Lashkar Gah. And so they'll be doing the work there.
So between the three of us -- the Corps, AID and AFCEE, we're the largest from the U.S. side doing construction. We're the largest in Afghanistan.
Q Just a follow-up. Do you know the numbers for NATO or donors outside of U.S. funders?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Sure. They -- NATO does most of their work through an organization called NAMSA, and NAMSA operates a little bit like the Corps of Engineers: they hire contractors to help them do that. They don't have quite the oversight capacity that we have. And they're doing, I believe, $200 million worth of construction, something like that, in the Bagram -- in the Kandahar area. You know, Kandahar airfield is a NATO base, and then a little bit of work also in other locations across the country, where they're using NATO common funding to do that work.
Q Really quick question. Where are you from, sir? Where are you going home?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah. I came out of command in the Portland district, Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, Oregon. I commanded there for three years, the largest hydroelectric district in the Corps of Engineers. And that's why I bring some of my water expertise to bear in Afghanistan. And I'm headed back to Portland after coming out of Afghanistan.
I don't know what my follow-on job is yet, but my wife and the Army are having a very good conversation about that. So I look forward to hearing how it comes out.
Q Okay, thanks.
Q Just one --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Got one more?
Q Yeah. I just want to make sure I got these figures right. So the police are doing $200 billion worth now and $2 billion starting in '09?
COL. O'DONOVAN: Not 200 billion (dollars).
Q No, 2 billion (dollars).
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah.
Q Two hundred billion would be --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Let me get to -- I'll give you the -- I'll give you the exact numbers to help you out.
Q (Off mike.)
COL. O'DONOVAN: Okay? So for Afghan National Police, in FY '08, we allocated 615 million (dollars) for them and then 300 million (dollars) for 2009 is what's allocated. Then for the operations and maintenance of those facilities, 104 million (dollars) in '08 and then 300 million in '09.
Q So where did this 2 billion --
COL. O'DONOVAN: Yeah, no, 2 billion (dollars) is the overall ANSF, for both ANP and ANA added together. Yeah.
Q Okay. Thanks.
COL. KECK: Okay, then.
COL. O'DONOVAN: Okay, great. Thank you very much.
Q Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.
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