Royal Engineers build a new future for Afghanistan

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A Royal Engineers team is helping local Afghans in Lashkar Gah build a future beyond 2014 by offering advice on a range of projects vital to the security of the area. Report by Ian Carr.

Building a new future for Afghanistan has a more tangible meaning for Royal Engineer Major Mike Eytle and his team than it does for most people.

Based at Lashkar Gah, they work for the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) as an engineering design consultancy, giving advice on a range of projects that have been identified as critical to the long-term success of the transition of authority for security in the province to the Afghans:

Our job is to plan and deliver work in accordance with PRT requirements. The newly-formed 28 government line ministries are, with our help, beginning to prioritise projects and to start to take on the work that, until now, the PRT has been doing on their behalf,” said Major Eytle.

An important part of the team’s work is to develop Afghan expertise so that they will be able to plan, build and maintain their own infrastructure in the future.

At the moment, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development are the thematic heads for the district planning budget, signing off work in accordance with the programme of work prioritised by Governor Mangal:

We provide expertise across the whole engineering process, including design and the placing of contracts for packages of work. We know how to tender, project-manage, and go through the acceptance and handover stage of a project,” said Major Eytle.

We also perform the function of clerk of works throughout the build phases. These are skills that the construction industry in the UK take for granted, but here they are new concepts.

And it is these types of skills that the team needs to pass onto Afghans in the line ministries.

At the moment Major Eytle and his team regularly go out on the ground to check on their projects. The fact they are soldiers helps:

We have to beg, borrow or steal trips on patrols when we want to take a look,” he said.

Usually the stops are made en route as part of the patrol, with the engineers having no more than 20 minutes to make their assessments:

Because we are trained soldiers, we can get out to these places, and we are used to making quick, detailed appraisals. But we’ve also got to check that the contractors are doing what they should be doing,” explained Major Eytle.

With the clock ticking to 2014, when the Afghans will need to be able to cope for themselves, and with an involvement in more than 100 projects ranging from the building of checkpoints to the construction and development of Bost Airport and the Helmand Police Training Centre, there is a lot to do.

There are 17 in the team, with a core of eight who have a range of engineering skill sets, each of whom has responsibility for roughly a dozen projects at any one time.

There are two Afghans attached to the team who have been brought in from Kabul:

People with the right skills are hard to find, but it is our intention to grow those skills; we are pushing hard,” said Major Eytle.

According to him, the development of the road network has delivered the biggest gain so far:

It benefits the military and civilians alike, as it connects the district capital with villages and allows the economy to grow,” he said.

New canals and irrigation systems are also being created, with much of the maintenance already being taken care of by Afghans. Such work, of course, is critical for the future of communities that depend on agriculture, but more has to be done.

An important part of the team’s work is carrying out needs assessments to help the thematic heads and line ministries to identify priorities, and to compile a list of what already exists and make decisions about what could be improved:

We also have to make sure that Afghans know how to maintain things; they can’t just keep building new things,” said Major Eytle.

To ensure that good practice is followed, a database of competent companies who have demonstrated their ability to tender for and produce work of an acceptable standard is being compiled. Of the 500 or so companies on the database, Major Eytle’s team has done business with 150 of them:

We help companies to understand what they need to do to satisfy prequalification questionnaires, just saying ‘yes we can do the work’ isn’t enough. We send out the invitations to tender, and afterwards we back brief the companies who haven’t been shortlisted to explain why,” he said.

It’s time-consuming work, but essential.

Naturally, when sending out tenders, Major Eytle and his team must translate the specifications into Dari and Pashto, but in a country where so many are illiterate, often documents cannot be read and many even struggle to understand the concept of plans, maps and drawings.

To get round this, the engineers include in the requirements printouts of 3D computer simulations of what the end result should look like.

But it is not just the Afghans who have had to learn to look at things in a new way:

I have had to teach our guys, when designing, they need to do it to Afghan standards using local materials and building methods, such as using arches and mud blocks, and to do it to traditional standards,” said Major Eytle.

But, while mud has been used successfully for centuries, concrete is becoming the must-have material, presenting the engineers with another challenge:

Using concrete is OK as long as they use it properly, reinforcing it correctly and remembering to tamp it down to remove air pockets,” said Major Eytle.

So there is a lot for the team to do, from ensuring that local contractors know how to lay concrete properly, to helping the Government decide what matters most to the district.

But if it’s a checkpoint or a Chamber of Commerce that needs building, Major Eytle and his men are the guys you want on the job.

This article is taken from the September 2011 edition of Defence Focus - the magazine for everyone in Defence.