August 1, 2010  

Defeating the terrain

Construction engineers can be part of the COIN solution

David Galula, in his book “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice,” stated that “the soldier must … be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout.” Nowhere is this process more challenging than along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border. Mountainous, restricted terrain combines with impoverished, underdeveloped communities to increase the difficulty of securing population centers and building the local government. The terrain aids the insurgent by providing concealment and negating many of the manpower and technology advantages of the counterinsurgent force. To achieve success, the counterinsurgent commander must first defeat the terrain.

Construction engineers can shape the terrain to the commander’s advantage. Consisting of carpenters, masons, road builders and other construction specialties, these engineer units have been traditionally viewed as an asset to be used away from the front lines. This misconception, however, sells short the unique capabilities that construction engineers can bring to the fight. Whether cutting a combat trail to facilitate movement through difficult terrain, constructing combat outposts to allow maneuver forces to hold key population centers or managing civilian contracted construction to improve the infrastructure, engineer expertise has the potential to transform an area of operations.

In Afghanistan in 2007, the 1-503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment used construction engineers in their area of operations as a key facet of the counterinsurgency plan. Task Force Eagle, in partnership with the construction engineer task force in Afghanistan, Task Force Pacemaker, 864th Construction Effects Battalion, utilized construction engineers to increase mobility into restricted areas, hold local population centers and transform the infrastructure in eastern Paktika Province.

The missions accomplished illustrate that with proper planning and integration of engineers into the maneuver timeline, commanders can enhance their counterinsurgency capabilities and achieve transformational effects across the full spectrum of counterinsurgency objectives.

One of the major challenges to coalition forces in eastern Paktika Province is the channelizing terrain. Mountainous and densely forested ridgelines separate narrow river valleys where many population centers are located. The isolating effect of this geography makes the task of clearing insurgents and linking local population centers to the central government difficult. Construction engineers can directly address this challenge, opening routes to heavy, armored vehicle traffic and also constructing protective obstacles and fortifications for local government centers threatened by insurgent forces.

The village of Charbaran, a population center 40 kilometers from Task Force Eagle’s headquarters, lay along a key infiltration route from Pakistan and was a known insurgent safe haven. It was accessible through only two narrow valleys where the road ran mainly through dry river beds. Heavy armored vehicles struggled on the rough terrain, and it was only trafficable during dry conditions. A slow rate of movement and lack of alternate ground movement routes made coalition traffic into and out of the village predictable, and the insurgents exploited this fact. In May 2007, insurgent forces attacked the local district center, damaging it and threatening local government in the area. Over the following months, attacks on coalition forces moving to and from Charbaran increased, providing evidence that insurgent forces were focusing their attention in the area.


As Task Force Eagle developed its plan to clear Charbaran and set the conditions for re-establishment of the local government, they integrated construction engineers directly. The overall mission of clearing insurgents and integrating the population into the Afghan government required many assets. The operation, named Righteous Fury, would focus on the entire district and involve clearing insurgent held areas, providing local police training and distributinghumanitarian aid. It would also be planned and led by the Afghan National Army. Despite the many goals of the operation, it was clear that reasserting longer-lasting control in the area required multiple, high speed routes into the village. Without better access, any changes in the village would only be temporary. Additionally, the damaged district center would need fortification to allow Afghan police forces to withstand any insurgent attacks that might occur after coalition forces departed.

To address these requirements, Task Force Pacemaker organized a construction engineering team to improve the routes into Charbaran and coordinated explosives support to blast open choke points and allow two-way traffic. The improvement team, consisting of armored bull dozers and road graders, would move immediately behind the clearing force, widening the trails and rerouting them to allow all-weather traffic. Once in Charbaran, carpenters and building engineers began the process of fortifying the district center at the same time as the infantry cleared the ridges surrounding the village. The construction team installed blast walls around the district center and excavated an anti-vehicle trench around the perimeter to prevent suicide attacks. Additionally, constructingobservation positions on the high ground improved the station’s defensive posture.

Although fuel requirements for the improvement team were large, over 2,000 gallons per day, and movingconstruction materials required logistical coordination during the military decision making process, the inclusion of construction assets in the maneuver team did not hamper the mobility. In fact, over the duration of the two-week mission the engineer team improved 100 kilometers of mountain trail into and out of Charbaran and constructed a fortified district center used both by Afghan and coalition forces as an outpost over the next year.

Given the restricted nature of the terrain along the Pakistani Border, construction of fortified combat outposts to over watch infiltration routes and hold population centers is a critical facet of counterinsurgency strategy. For an isolated element to secure them over long periods, the outposts must place the defenders at a significant advantage. The village of Margah, in northern Bermel District, Paktika Province, is a historically Pashtun town located in mountainous, restricted terrain only four kilometers from the Pakistan Border. Lying at the convergence of multiple river valleys, the town acted as both an economic center and key terrain in the effort to control insurgent movement from Pakistan.

Initially established in January 2007, a combat outpost within this village served as a location for coalition and Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) security and reconstruction efforts in the region. Efforts to improve governance and extend the reach of the Afghan government began to progress almost immediately after the construction of the outpost, and these successful efforts attracted the attention of insurgent forces. Weekly direct and indirect fire attacks on the base not only highlighted the extent to which it disrupted insurgent operations in the area, but also demonstrated the vulnerability of the post. Located in the low ground within a village, insurgents could achieve plunging fires into the base. Moreover, due to its location within the village attacks sometimes caused damage within the village.

For these reasons, Task Force Eagle decided in October 2007 to move the Margah Combat Outpost. Relocating the outpost to the top of Tor Ghundey, a 1400 foot ridge adjacent to the village, would put coalition forces on the dominant terrain in the area and lessen the ability of the enemy to directly attack the combat outpost. It would also prevent further collateral damage of the village while at the same time allowing coalition forces to better monitor movement in the river valleys below the combat outpost. Lt. Col. Michael Fenzel, the Task Force Eagle Commander, wanted the base to have the ability to support extended, task force level operations in the valley. So, the combat outpost needed to be placed on top of a mountain and would also have to be large enough to support hundreds of coalition and ANSF troops during large operations.

Though the joint planning process was initially focused on meeting the logistical challenges associated with the construction mission, it quickly became clear that combined planning with the builder and the customer working together could yield a customized combat outpost. The maneuver team organized and supported a full construction reconnaissance, where construction engineers and the future occupants of the combat outpost spent two days surveying the Tor Ghundey and its approaches and identifying challenges to the construction plan.

With the information from the reconnaissance, multiple designs for the combat outpost were generated and the maneuver commander, his staff and the company commander that would occupy the post all provided input and edits for the final design that met their tactical requirements. For example, the guard towers at the combat outpost were built with both a firing deck and observation and sensing station based on the recommendation of the company commander. Also, force protected walkways were included to shelter soldiers moving around the COP from indirect fire.

Due to the short timeline, less than two months, that were available to plan and resource the mission, it would have been very difficult to marshal the necessary materials without high priority at a theater level. This is the critical time for construction projects. Once materials and workers are on-site, getting something built requires only that sufficient fuel is on-site to keep equipment running. If materials are missing, however, the project will grind to a halt. Because Task Force Eagle fully understood and was a partner in developing the construction plan, the staff was able to effectively communicate the critical need for construction materials as part of their operational plan. This type of emphasis got resources moving in a manner uncommon in most projects. By early March, the start date for the operation, engineers had all the materials and equipment required to build the base staged and ready for movement.

Construction of the combat outpost itself was executed in March 2008 over a period of 21 days. Almost immediately, direct and indirect fire attacks on the construction site occurred. It was in this aspect of the operation that Task Force Eagle recognized a key characteristic of operating with construction engineers. Construction engineer units are not constituted with the assets or training to fully secure themselves in an austere location over a period of weeks. Carpenters and electricians can be placed in a security role, but in doing this the efficiency of the engineer unit to do its assigned mission is greatly decreased. Though both infantry and engineers can be tasked to execute each other’s jobs, neither is as efficient as when tasked with their own specialties. With assets on-hand and maneuver forces securing the jobsite, Team Bulldog not only constructed the outpost but also was able to further refine the design to meet the needs of the customer. Carpenters installed ballistic glass HMMWV windows in the guard towers, additional living space and a battalion TOC to support large-scale operations. At end state, the base was occupied as planned by maneuver forces and had a surge capability that would provide flexibility during future operations.

Beyond clearing insurgents and securing population centers, defeating the insurgent requires changing the environment from which the insurgency gained strength. This broad task requires the counterinsurgent to step beyond military tactics and into community and nation building. The sheer magnitude of the reconstruction task in Afghanistan makes it an issue dealt with from a theater level down to individual platoon leaders working with village elders, with tremendous potential to win over local communities if executed successfully.

To some extent, every military unit in Afghanistan must have engineering knowledge and capability to oversee this effort. The majority of infrastructure improvement accomplished is executed by local contractors, funneling funds into the local economy and fostering broad growth. The upside of this method is clear, but using local Afghan contractors also has a downside. After decades of war, the engineering knowledge and capability within the Afghan construction industry is limited at best. The local people who receive the task to build schools, drainage structures or roads often are unable to read the plans provided by the contracting process. An added challenge associated with the infrastructure mission is that oftentimes projects are planned and funded over a period of a year or more, with the original maneuver unit that requested a building project replaced by a follow-on unit by the time the construction project actually begins. With changing units, priorities for reconstruction change and construction and contracting managers oftentimes work with an outdated interpretation of the maneuver commander’s intent.

Here too construction engineers can be an asset. The partnership between the maneuver task force and construction engineers in eastern Paktika Province led to more efficient infrastructure improvement across the province. Close communication and joint planning of infrastructure missions linked Task Force Eagle’s intent and requirements with the technical expertise of the construction engineers in Task Force Pacemaker. One example of this close coordination was the construction of roads in the Bermel Valley.

Planning for the construction of a network of roads near the Pakistan Border linking coalition forces in the vicinity of the villages of Bermel, Shkin and Margah was initiated in early 2007. These roads would decrease the travel time for coalition convoys while at the same time yielding permanent improvements to the infrastructure in the region. With the time required to generate contracts and specifications, solicit bids and choose contractors the road construction effort did not begin until early 2008. Over this period, the tactical situation shifted, making road locations identified initially no longer desirable. Additionally, an increase in IED activity on the routes made the method of construction and timetable for road completion a high-priority to the maneuver commander. Because the engineer and maneuver task forces had a close relationship that grew from integrated planning, as described above, the new requirements for the roads could be translated into contract amendments quickly. No change in the contract cost or the completion date occurred, and the local contractor received specific guidance on the routes from the commander on the ground. Additionally, an engineer inspection team was stationed in the area to monitor the quality of construction and ensure the maneuver commander’s intent was met.

Construction engineers are in short supply in an underdeveloped region like Afghanistan. As such, the list of priorities for construction is always longer than can be immediately addressed by construction units. Priorities for construction are therefore driven at a brigade or theater level, and generally address long-term operational and development objectives. If a maneuver unit develops an operational plan that can be enhanced by the use of construction engineers, coordination with the construction engineer unit directly is helpful but will not always result in immediate support. It is the priority list that drives engineer requirements. Identifying the operational requirement for construction engineer support through the maneuver chain-of-command, however, has the potential to change the priority list for engineer support and result in immediate reallocation of engineer assets.

MAJ. NICHOLAS MELIN is an assistant professor at the Military Academy at West Point. He commanded a construction engineer company in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy or the Defense Department.