[News] Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops in Afghanistan

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Sun Feb 12 19:09:23 EST 2012

Tomgram: Nick Turse, Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops in Afghanistan

By Nick Turse
Posted on February 12, 2012, Printed on February 12, 2012

In Afghanistan, “victory” came early -- with the 
U.S. invasion of 2001.  Only then did the trouble begin.

Ever since the U.S. occupation managed to revive 
the Taliban, one of the least popular of popular 
movements in memory, the official talk, year 
after year, has been of modest “progress,” of 
limited “success,” of enemy advances 
of “corners” provisionally turned.  And always 
such talk has been accompanied by 
on-the-ground reports of gross corruption, fixed 
elections, massive desertions from the Afghan 
army and police, “ghost” soldiers, and the like.

Year after year, ever more American and NATO 
money has been poured into the training of a 
security force so humongous that, given the 
impoverished Afghan government, it will largely 
be owned and 
for by Washington until hell freezes over (or 
until it disintegrates) -- 
billion in 2011 and a similar figure for 
2012.  And year after year, there appear stories 
like the recent one 
Reuters that began: “Only 1 percent of Afghan 
police and soldiers are capable of operating 
independently, a top U.S. commander said on 
Wednesday, raising further doubts about whether 
Afghan forces will be able to take on a 
still-potent insurgency as the West 
withdraws.”  And year after year, the response to 
such dismal news is to pour in yet more money and advisors.

In the meantime, Afghans in army or police 
uniforms have been 
away those advisors in startling numbers and with 
for which there is no precedent in modern 
times.  (You might have to reach back to the 
Mutiny in British India of the nineteenth century 
to find a similar sense of loathing resulting in 
similarly bloody acts.)  And year after year, 
these killings are publicly termed 
incidents” of little significance by American and 
NATO officials -- even when the Afghan 
perpetrator of the bloodiest of them, who 
reportedly simply wanted to “kill Americans,” is 
given a public funeral at which 
of his countrymen appeared as mourners.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pursue a war in 
which its supply lines, thousands of miles long, 
on the good will of two edgy “allies,” Russia and 
Pakistan.  At the moment, with the cheaper 
Pakistani routes to Afghanistan cut off by that 
country’s government (in anger over an incident 
in which 24 of their troops were killed by 
American cross-border air strikes), it’s 
estimated that the cost of resupplying U.S. 
troops there has risen 
Keep in mind that, before that route was shut 
down, a single gallon of fuel for U.S. troops was 
at least $400!

Admittedly, just behind the scenes, the latest 
intelligence assessments might be far gloomier 
than the official talk.  A December 2011 U.S. 
National Intelligence Estimate, for instance, 
that the war was “mired in stalemate” and that 
the Afghan government might not survive an 
American and NATO withdrawal.  But it’s rare that 
the ranks of the military are broken publicly by 
truth-teller. This has just happened and it's 
been bracing.  After a year in Afghanistan 
spending time with (and patrolling with) U.S. 
troops, as well as consulting Afghan military 
officers and local officials, Lt. Col. Daniel 
Davis published a breathtakingly blunt, 
whistleblowing piece in Armed Forces Journal.  It 
baldly that, in Afghanistan, the emperor was 
naked. (“What I saw bore no resemblance to rosy 
official statements by U.S. military leaders 
about conditions on the ground... I did not need 
to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, 
but merely hoped to see evidence of positive 
trends, to see companies or battalions produce 
even minimal but sustainable progress. Instead, I 
witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level.”)

Given all this, here’s what remains doggedly 
remarkable, as Nick Turse reports in the latest 
post in his TomDispatch series on the 
face of empire (supported by 
Foundation): the U.S. military continues to build 
in Afghanistan as if modest progress were indeed 
the byword, limited success a reality, and 
corners still there to be decisively turned -- if 
not by a giant army of occupation, then by drones 
and special operations forces.  Go figure.  Tom

450 Bases and It’s Not Over Yet
The Pentagon’s Afghan Basing Plans for Prisons, Drones, and Black Ops

In late December, the lot was just a big blank: a 
few burgundy metal shipping containers sitting in 
an expanse of crushed eggshell-colored gravel 
inside a razor-wire-topped fence.  The American 
military in Afghanistan doesn’t want to talk 
about it, but one day soon, it will be a new hub 
for the American drone war in the Greater Middle East.

Next year, that empty lot will be a two-story 
concrete intelligence facility for America’s 
drone war, brightly lit and filled with powerful 
computers kept in climate-controlled comfort in a 
country where most of the population has no 
access to 
It will boast almost 7,000 square feet of 
offices, briefing and conference rooms, and a 
large “processing, exploitation, and 
dissemination” operations center -- and, of 
course, it will be built with American tax dollars.

Nor is it an anomaly.  Despite all the talk of 
drawdowns and withdrawals, there has been a 
boom in Afghanistan that shows little sign of 
abating.  In early 2010, the U.S.-led 
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) 
had nearly 
bases in Afghanistan.  Today, Lieutenant Lauren 
Rago of ISAF public affairs tells TomDispatch, the number tops 450.

The hush-hush, high-tech, super-secure facility 
at the massive air base in Kandahar is just one 
of many building projects the U.S. military 
currently has planned or underway in 
Afghanistan.  While some U.S. bases are indeed 
closing up shop or being 
to the Afghan government, and there’s 
of combat operations slowing or ending next year, 
as well as a 
of American combat forces from Afghanistan by 
2014, the U.S. military is still preparing for a 
much longer haul at mega-bases like Kandahar and 
Bagram airfields. The same is true even of some 
smaller camps, forward operating bases (FOBs), 
and combat outposts (COPs) scattered through the 
country’s backlands.  “Bagram is going through a 
significant transition during the next year to 
two years,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Daniel 
Gerdes of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ 
Bagram Office recently told Freedom Builder, a 
Corps of Engineers publication.  “We’re 
transitioning... into a long-term, five-year, 10-year vision for the base.”

Whether the U.S. military will still be in 
Afghanistan in five or 10 years remains to be 
seen, but steps are currently being taken to make 
that possible.  U.S. military publications, plans 
and schematics, contracting documents, and other 
official data examined by TomDispatch catalog 
hundreds of construction projects worth billions 
of dollars slated to begin, continue, or conclude in 2012.

While many of these efforts are geared toward 
structures for Afghan forces or civilian 
institutions, a considerable number involve U.S. 
facilities, some of the most significant being 
dedicated to the ascendant forms of American 
warfare: drone operations and missions by 
special operations units.  The available plans 
for most of these projects suggest 
durability.  “The structures that are going in 
are concrete and mortar, rather than plywood and 
tent skins,” says Gerdes. As of last December, 
his office was involved in 30 Afghan construction 
projects for U.S. or international coalition 
partners worth almost $427 million.

The Big Base Build-Up

Recently, the New York Times 
that President Obama is likely to approve a plan 
to shift much of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan 
to special operations forces.  These elite troops 
would then conduct kill/capture missions and 
train local troops well beyond 2014.  Recent 
building efforts in the country bear this out.

A major project at Bagram Air Base, for instance, 
involves the construction of a special operations 
forces complex, a clandestine base within a base 
that will afford America’s black ops troops 
secrecy and near-absolute autonomy from other 
U.S. and coalition forces.  Begun in 2010, the 
$29 million project is slated to be completed 
this May and join roughly 
locations around the country where troops from 
Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan have been stationed.

Elsewhere on Bagram, tens of millions of dollars 
are being spent on projects that are less sexy 
but no less integral to the war effort, like 
paving dirt roads and upgrading drainage systems 
on the mega-base.  In January, the U.S. military 
awarded a $7 million contract to a Turkish 
construction company to build a 
24,000-square-foot command-and-control 
facility.  Plans are also in the works for a new 
operations center to support tactical fighter jet 
missions, a new flight-line fire station, as well 
as more lighting and other improvements to support the American air war.

Last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai 
that the U.S.-run prison at Bagram be transferred 
to Afghan control.  By the end of January, the 
U.S. had issued a $36 million contract for the 
construction, within a year, of a new prison on 
the base.  While details are sparse, plans for 
the detention center indicate a thoroughly 
modern, high-security facility complete with 
guard towers, advanced surveillance systems, 
administrative facilities, and the capacity to 
house about 2,000 prisoners.

At Kandahar Air Field, that new intelligence 
facility for the drone war will be joined by a 
similarly-sized structure devoted to 
administrative operations and maintenance tasks 
associated with robotic aerial missions.  It will 
be able to accommodate as many as 180 personnel 
at a time.  With an estimated combined price tag 
of up to $5 million, both buildings will be 
integral to Air Force and possibly CIA operations 
involving both the MQ-1 Predator drone and its 
more advanced and more heavily-armed progeny, the MQ-9 Reaper.

The military is keeping information about these 
drone facilities under extraordinarily tight 
wraps.  They refused to answer questions about 
whether, for instance, the construction of these 
new centers for robotic warfare are in any way 
related to the 
of Shamsi Air Base in neighboring Pakistan as a 
drone operations center, or if they signal 
efforts to increase the tempo of drone missions 
in the years ahead. The International Joint 
Command’s chief of Intelligence, Surveillance, 
and Reconnaissance (ISR) operations, aware that 
such questions were to be posed, backed out of a 
planned interview with TomDispatch.

“Unfortunately our ISR chief here in the 
International Joint Command is going to be unable 
to address your questions,” Lieutenant Ryan Welsh 
of ISAF Joint Command Media Outreach explained by 
email just days before the scheduled interview. 
He also made it clear that any question involving 
drone operations in Pakistan was off limits. “The 
issues that you raise are outside the scope under 
which the IJC operates, therefore we are unable 
to facilitate this interview request.”

Whether the construction at Kandahar is designed 
to free up facilities elsewhere for CIA drone 
operations across the border in Pakistan or is 
related only to missions within Afghanistan, it 
strongly suggests a ramping up of unmanned 
operations.  It is, however, just one facet of 
the ongoing construction at the air field.  This 
month, a $26 million project to build 11 new 
structures devoted to tactical vehicle 
maintenance at Kandahar is scheduled for 
completion.  With two large buildings for upkeep 
and repairs, one devoted strictly to fixing 
tires, another to painting vehicles, as well as 
an industrial-sized car wash, and administrative 
and storage facilities, the big base’s building 
boom shows no sign of flickering out.

Construction and Reconstruction

This year, at Herat Air Base in the province of 
the same name bordering Turkmenistan and Iran, 
the U.S. is slated to begin a multimillion-dollar 
project to enhance its special forces’ air 
operations.  Plans are in the works to expand 
apron space -- where aircraft can be parked, 
serviced, and loaded or unloaded -- for 
helicopters and airplanes, as well as to build 
new taxiways and aircraft shelters.

That project is just one of nearly 130, 
cumulatively valued at about $1.5 billion, slated 
to be carried out in Herat, Helmand, and Kandahar 
provinces this year, according to Army Corps of 
Engineers documents examined by 
TomDispatch.  These also include efforts at Camp 
Tombstone and Camp Dwyer, both in Helmand 
Province as well as Kandahar’s FOB Hadrian and 
FOB Wilson.  The U.S. military also recently 
awarded a contract for more air field apron space 
at a base in Kunduz, a new secure entrance and 
new roads for FOB Delaram II, and new utilities 
and roads at FOB Shank, while the Marines 
recently built a new chapel at Camp Bastion.

Seven years ago, Forward Operating Base 
located a mile up in a mountain range in Zabul 
Province, was a well-outfitted, if remote, 
American base.  After U.S. troops abandoned it, 
however, the base fell into disrepair.  Last 
month, American troops returned in force and 
began rebuilding the outpost, constructing 
everything from new troop housing to a new 
storage facility.  “We built a lot of buildings, 
we put up a lot of tents, we filled a lot of 
sandbags, and we increased our force protection 
significantly,” Captain Joe Mickley, commanding 
officer of the soldiers taking up residence at 
the base, told a military reporter.

Decommission and Deconstruction

Hesco barriers are, in essence, big bags of 
dirt.  Up to seven feet tall, made of canvas and 
heavy gauge wire mesh, they form 
walls around U.S. outposts all over 
Afghanistan.  They’ll take the worst of sniper 
rounds, rifle-propelled grenades, even mortar 
shells, but one thing can absolutely wreck them 
-- the Marines’ 9th Engineer Support Battalion.

At the beginning of December, the 9th Engineers 
were building bases and filling up Hescos in 
Helmand Province.  By the end of the month, they were tearing others down.

Wielding pickaxes, shovels, bolt-cutters, 
powerful rescue saws, and front-end loaders, they 
have begun “demilitarizing” bases, cutting 
countless Hescos -- which cost $700 or more a pop 
-- into heaps of jagged scrap metal and 
bulldozing berms in advance of the announced 
American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  At 
Firebase Saenz, for example, Marines were bathed 
in a sea of crimson sparks as they sawed their 
way through the metal mesh and let the dirt spill 
out, leaving a country already haunted by the 
ghosts of British and Russian bases with yet 
another defunct foreign outpost.  After Saenz, it 
was on to another patrol base slated for destruction.

Not all rural outposts are being torn down, 
however.  Some are being 
over to the Afghan Army or police.  And new 
facilities are now being built for the indigenous 
forces at an increasing rate.  “If current 
projections remain accurate, we will award 18 
contracts in February,” Bonnie Perry, the head of 
contracting for the Army Corps of Engineers’ 
Afghanistan Engineering District-South, 
military reporter Karla Marshall.  “Next quarter 
we expect that awards will remain high, with the 
largest number of contract awards occurring in 
May.”  One of the projects underway is a large 
base near Herat, which will include barracks, 
dining facilities, office space, and other amenities for Afghan commandos.

Tell Me How This Ends

No one should be surprised that the U.S. military 
is building up and tearing down bases at the same 
time, nor that much of the new construction is 
going on at mega-bases, while small outposts in 
the countryside are being abandoned.  This is 
exactly what you would expect of an occupation 
force looking to scale back its “footprint” and 
end major combat operations while maintaining an 
on-going presence in Afghanistan.  Given the U.S. 
military’s projected retreat to its giant bases 
and an increased reliance on kill/capture 
black-ops as well as unmanned air missions, it’s 
also no surprise that its signature projects for 
2012 include a new special operations forces 
compound, clandestine drone facilities, and a brand new military prison.

There’s little doubt Bagram Air Base will exist 
in five or 10 years.  Just who will be occupying 
it is, however, less clear.  After all, in Iraq, 
the Obama administration negotiated for some way 
to station a 
military force -- 10,000 or more troops -- there 
beyond a withdrawal date that had been set in 
stone for years.  While a token number of U.S. 
troops and a highly militarized State Department 
remain there, the Iraqi government largely 
thwarted the American efforts -- and now, even 
the State Department presence is being halved.

It’s less likely this will be the case in 
Afghanistan, but it remains possible.  Still, 
it’s clear that the military is building in that 
country as if an enduring American presence were 
a given.  Whatever the outcome, vestiges of the 
current base-building boom will endure and become 
part of America’s Afghan legacy.
On Bagram’s grounds stands a distinctive 
structure called the “Crow’s Nest.”  It’s an old 
control tower built by the Soviets to coordinate 
their military operations in Afghanistan.  That 
foreign force left the country in 
The Soviet Union itself 
from the planet less than three years later.  The tower remains.

America’s new prison in Bagram will undoubtedly 
remain, too.  Just who the jailers will be and 
who will be locked inside five years or 10 years 
from now is, of course, unknown.  But given the 
history -- marked by torture and deaths -- of the 
of inmates at Bagram and, more generally, of the 
toward prisoners by 
parties to the conflict over the years, in no 
scenario are the results likely to be pretty.

Nick Turse is the associate editor of 
TomDispatch.com.  An award-winning journalist, 
his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, 
This article is the sixth in his new 
on the changing face of American empire, which is 
being underwritten by 
Foundation.  You can follow him on Twitter 
and on Facebook.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and 
join us on 

Copyright 2012 Nick Turse

© 2012 TomDispatch. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175501/

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