Building Bridges in Afghanistan

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ISAF Photo / Air Force Master Sgt. Mary Hinson

A newly-built bridge over the Arghandab River in Afghanistan's Zabul Province.

Major James Palmer liked to think of himself as a bridge builder when he was in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011…most likely because, as an Army engineer, he is a bridge builder. Anyone who has had to live without a bridge in his or her neighborhood for awhile knows just how vital those spans can be.

In Afghanistan, it turns out they’re also ripe for corruption and an ideal place to plant improvised explosive devices. Palmer spoke of his bridge-building adventures in this recently-posted April interview with the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Highlights:

When I first arrived into country, honestly, for Afghanistan, my immediate thoughts were chaotic…My immediate observation, especially as an Engineer was, “How can we have been here for 10 years? We’re still all living in tents and squalor [Laughs] when we’re living in containerized housing units in Iraq?”…

One of the things [my commander] said that was his priority was to maintain freedom of maneuver along Highway 1. As an Engineer, I’ll tell you, if you want to target that freedom of maneuver you’re going to do it at the choke points, those bridges. I started looking at those bridges and I realized that at the time six of them had been destroyed.

My background in IED defeat led me to go out and look at them and find out how they were destroyed. We found out they had been scheduled to be rebuilt, but it was being done by a company called the Louis Berger Group, I think it was. We went to a meeting early in the deployment where a contractor got up, not knowing us from Adam, and he made the statement in front of the governor of Zabul and [my commander], that these bridges would be done by August and it was like July.

I had been to the bridges personally and I said, “Excuse me sir, the BS flag is on the field. There’s no way he can do that.”…he hasn’t begun demolitions of the ones that had been destroyed. I haven’t even seen any plans…

I started to look at what was contracted and I guess it’s hard to explain but he had some stock designs that he had handed to Afghanistan contractors and said, “Hey, we’re going to pay you to build this bridge.”

The Afghans don’t have the technical background in engineering that we do — they’re great masons but there just not as an educated population.

I looked at these things and said, “You’re going to tell me that you’re going to hire Afghan contractors to do post-stress concrete T beam bridge construction? Ninety percent of US contractors don’t even know what I just said, how do you expect Afghans to do this?”

We ended up working through a lot of things but basically, when I started asking questions at the meetings my colonel and the governor suddenly said, “Oh, somebody has a thought about the reality of this. Yeah, we’re going to put you in charge of doing this.”…

For the most part, [the damages to the bridges] was done by IEDs. Do you know what the stringer of a bridge is? It’s the beam that goes from end to end. If you look up under a bridge, you’ll see the beams? In between the beams, there is a pocket of air. In America that’s fine because the beams move a little bit. In Afghanistan, it’s a great place to put homemade explosives, so a lot of them were destroyed that way…

I would go to civilian contractors and I’d say look, “You just told him this would be ready in August and that’s not the truth…” They’d say, “We gave the Afghans this design. If they don’t do it by August that’s on them.”

[I said] “They can’t do it by August. They can’t even read this thing. It’s written in English and you’re writing in Engineer technology they don’t speak.”…

I was able to deliver the need for freedom of maneuver with the promise of, “We’re working towards these bridges.” [My commander] knew early on that, “We’re never going to drive on these things, but somebody will.” [Laughs]…

The Afghans grew so accustomed to taking whatever they were given that their first response was when anybody said, “We’re going to pay you to do –” they’ll tell you, “Yes,” just like these guys said, “Yeah, we can design that. We can build that. Just give us the money. You want it by next month? Sure. Next month. [Laughs] We’ll tell you whatever you need to hear to give us that check.”

That was the hard part for me to figure out initially because I wanted to believe them. I wanted to say, “You really think you can do this? Explain to me how you’re going to.”

“We’re going to go out and buy a bridge and put it in that gap.”

Just trying to struggle with what their capabilities were versus what they were hoping we’d pay for…

One of the first bridges I went to — in the summer of 2010 there was some heavy, heavy downpours and the flooding in Pakistan made the news. I remember that much. There was also flooding along the Tarnac River in Afghanistan. These bridges, this ring route, is parallel to that. One of the bridges, my bypass had been washed out. My secondary bypass worked but [my commander] sent me out to investigate. I looped across the Tarnac River and came back at it and inspected the bridge.

I’d seen the damage and I was standing at the bypass that had been washed out and the culvert, the concrete tubes under a road? They’d completely washed away in the loose sand. As water is flowing and I’m looking at all this other stuff, I went to the top of the bridge — I took a whole bunch of pictures — I went to the top of the bridge and looked down. It’s funny how you can’t see when you’re standing the forest but when you’re on the outside looking in, you can. I went to the top of the bridge and looked down and I saw these yellow jugs. Yellow jugs are what they put homemade explosive in. Where I took the pictures, I was standing on 600 pounds of homemade explosives that were already wired, triggered, and ready to go. Interesting.

That event, it didn’t really bother me because nothing happened.

What I thought was interesting, and is also related to that trip, I was coming back on Highway 1 and again, heavy rains. The road had given way under one of our own logistics convoys and a truck had tipped over. It contained water bottles, the little drinking water bottles. The Afghan villagers from right outside the village thought, “This is a great opportunity. The pallets have fallen over. Water jugs are all over the place.”

Like children, they were throwing the water jugs at each other. They would burst on their backs or whatever and they thought this was great fun. This stopped traffic because I was right behind it. After a while, they’d get tired and they’d walk down to the Tarnac River and with their hands scoop up mud and drink it so they could go back and throw water bottles at each other. It dawned on me, “How are we going to help these people?”