October 19, 2009

Bagram Airfield keeps growing

Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the rocky earth.

Seven days a week, concrete trucks rumble along the dusty perimeter road of this air base as bulldozers and backhoes reshape the rocky earth.

Hundreds of laborers slap mortar onto bricks as they build barracks and offices. Four concrete plants on the base have operated around the clock for 18 months to keep up with the construction needs.

Official U.S. policy is not to create a permanent occupation force in Afghanistan. But it is clear from what's happening at Bagram Airfield - the Afghan end of the Charleston-to-Afghanistan lifeline - that the U.S. military won't be packing up soon.

More than $200 million in construction projects - from dormitories to cargo-handling yards - either are under way or planned on just the Air Force side of the base.

Millions more will be spent by the U.S. Army on streets, roads, sewers and a wastewater treatment plant.

Bagram is a military boom town.

"It's a big place," said Lt. Col. Troy Joslin, a member of the Indiana Army National Guard and chief of base operations, who is unofficially referred to as Bagram's mayor.

Over the past two years, the number of U.S. personnel who live inside the 6,000-acre compound - about twice the size of Sumter's Shaw Air Force Base - has doubled to 20,000.

Included in that number are 3,500 airmen assigned to the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, based here. That's nearly triple the 1,200 airmen who were at Bagram in 2007.

There also are more U.S. aircraft.

Today, about 60 planes - from needle-nosed F-16 fighters to C-130 turboprop cargo planes - permanently are assigned to the base, up from about 30 in 2007. Other U.S. planes - like the C-17s based at Charleston Air Force base - regularly whistle in and out.

Bagram's growth over the past two years came even before President Barack Obama's recent decision to boost the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan by 17,000 to about 68,000. The president also is weighing a request by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to add at least 40,000 more service members.

Adding more U.S. troops to the Afghan fight will only increase Bagram's importance.

U.S. troops arrived here in December 2001, occupying a base first used during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

During the day, some 5,000 cars and trucks, assigned to units on base, now clog Bagram's tree-lined main drag, called Disney Drive.

Shops selling Afghan rugs, jewelry and cell phones line a walkway leading to the post exchange. Short on cash? Two ATMs are inside a combination Pizza Hut/Bojangles shop. (And, yes, the Pizza Hut delivers.)

Troops line up for lattes at the Green Bean coffee shop and Whoppers at the Burger King.

Along with about 3,000 civilians, they also can eat at seven dining halls operated by Kellogg Brown & Root. The private contractor collects $29 from the U.S. government for each meal it serves.

When they are through eating, the troops can lift weights around the clock in a huge tent, about the size of a circus big top.

Bagram has grown so fast over the past couple of years that Air Force commanders have ordered civil engineers to come up with a master plan for the base.

Plans have been started before but never finished as Air Force personnel rotate into and out of Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Kevin Knuf, an Air Guard member from Reno, Nev.

"I'm sure some of this work has been done before, but it's been lost in the shuffle," said Knuf, noting Air Force personnel usually spend only 120 days in Afghanistan before they are rotated out and replaced by new airmen.

The first challenge in developing a plan will be figuring out just which units need to be near the base's airstrip and which need to be next to each other, Knuf said.

"Some of the missions don't make sense that they are next to each other," Knuf said.

For example, helicopter rotors stir up rocks. But helicopters currently are based next to fighter jets, whose engines suck in anything close to their air intakes.

When U.S. units first moved onto Bagram there was plenty of room, said Senior Master Sgt. Matt Mageria, Knuf's senior enlisted leader.

"It was sort of like the Wild West, where you claimed space, so it was your property," Mageria said.

But, today, more than 100 U.S. and NATO units call Bagram home, said Joslin of the Indiana National Guard.

Said Mageria: "Once everybody's property started turning into their neighbor's property, you started having disputes."

And shortages.

Afghanistan has plenty of rock and sand to make concrete. But the country is woefully short of other building supplies, like door hinges.

"We need anything you can get at the Home Depot," said Tech Sgt. Richard Panepinto of Angola, N.Y.

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