Mountain Blade: partnership slices through historic Afghan pass
With a surface denoting the embodiment of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, the Salang Pass is more than a roadway; it’s an economic and cultural symbol to Afghans. The battered roadway through the Parwan province is the primary transit route between northern and southern Afghanistan crossing the treacherous Hindu Kush mountain range, and typically the only pass in the area to remain in use the entire year.
This highway is the main route between North and South Afghanistan, by which nearly all commerce for the capital city of Kabul and all other cities in the east, such as Bagram and Jalalabad, travels. An estimated 5,000 vehicles travel daily through the winding mountain pass.
With little maintenance since the Salang Tunnel first opened in 1964, the iconic passage has slowly slipped into a rutted path of decay. Continuous risk of closure threatened the economic and social lifeline to southern Afghanistan. After decades of conflict and neglect, Afghan and NATO leadership concluded something had to be done.
During a visit to the tunnel with Afghan Ministry of Public Works representatives in spring 2012, Gen. John R. Allen, International Security Assistance Force commander, committed to assist Afghanistan with repairs prior to winter. ISAF Joint Command tasked the engineers of the 411th Engineer Brigade, Joint Task Force Empire (JTF Empire), with the mission. Operation Mountain Blade was born.
The road oft traveled …
The Salang Tunnel remains the primary connection from northern to southern Afghanistan. The path reduces travel time from 72 to 10 hours and cuts approximately 190 miles (300 km) from the trip. It is 1.6 miles (2.6 km) long at an altitude of approximately 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level, making it one of the highest road tunnels in the world.
The Soviet Union and Afghanistan developed the Salang Road jointly, starting in 1955. It was a crucial military link through the country during the Soviet-Afghan war. The natural danger inherent in the pass, such as avalanches and extreme weather, has been compounded over the years by military actions and accidents. A tunnel fire in 1982 killed more than 170 Soviets and Afghans. Due to combat between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban through 1997 and 98, the ventilation system and entrances to the tunnel were destroyed, resulting in the closure of the tunnel to all but foot traffic. It was not reopened until January 2002, after a joint effort by Afghanistan, Russia, the U.S. and other countries cleared the pass of mines and debris.
The area of the route can be treacherous and the tunnel itself has been the site of many disasters. Inside the tunnel may become pitch black, and the air is filled with deadly carbon monoxide. Travelers can feel the air settling into their lungs, chokingly and nauseatingly so. While there are other routes through the Hindu Kush, the tunnel is the quickest, most efficient road and deemed most protected from insurgent attacks.
“The Salang Tunnel is a strategic piece of key terrain,” explained Lt. Col. Jon Brierton, JTF Empire chief of operations and Afghan National Army development officer. “It’s the focal point of the northern distribution network. It’s of substantial interest to (NATO and Afghan forces).”
Traveling through the darkened walls of the Salang tunnel, travelers can see runoff from the mountain water seeping through holes in the tunnel’s half-century old walls. Pavement of the road had been worn into a bumpy rutted path of mud in many parts. Cars and trucks tightly squeeze through, depending on the traffic volume, too often with only inches to spare between vehicles and the walls.
The long climb …
The operation was initiated to enable the Afghan MoPW to conduct emergency repairs of Highway One through the Salang Pass by providing equipment, materials and technical advice to repair portions of the road. IJC provided a specific scope; to assist in the repair of 400 meters of road inside each end of the tunnel and 200 meters outside each end of the tunnel - a total of 1,200 meters. The repairs were to be conducted as soon as possible to finish before the winter snows arrived.
“The intended scope was to improve the road surface,” explained Brierton. “The road surface was in a serious state of disrepair prior to Empire’s involvement. There were massive ruts and potholes running throughout the inside of the tunnel which was a result of poor drainage. Over the years, it’s been repaired through various means, whether it was putting down concrete or overlaying it with asphalt. One of the biggest challenges was getting down to a solid sub-base from which Joint Task Force Empire could rebuild up the road.”
“OMB is phase one of a two phase (Commander's Emergency Response Program) project to complete emergency repairs of the Salang Tunnel,” stated Lt. Col. Greg Wooten, 605th Survey and Design Engineer Detachment commander. “Two million dollars of the total $20 million project was allocated to phase one. Phase two is contracted to a civilian company and they indicate they will be on-site to begin work on living quarters in December 2012 and construction in spring 2013.”
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers here in Kabul have contracted for the enduring repair of the road surface which is phase two of this project to essentially resurface the roadway throughout the entire Salang Tunnel roadway,” Brierton elaborated. “This includes the snow galleries that lead up into it. There are approximately 16 galleries that essentially exist as an avalanche precautionary measure.”
Movement to the site began in August. Construction started on schedule Sept. 1. The 605th Engineer Detachment Construction Management Team took the lead on the operation which included elements of the 7th Engineer Battalion, Task Force Red Devils; 1st Battalion, 142nd Infantry Regiment, Task Force Hydra, assuming the security role, ensuring force protection to construction and support assets throughout the area; and the 10th Sustainment Brigad., Task Force Muleskinner, supplying logistical support.
The operation was planned as a collaborative effort between JTF Empire and Afghan engineers. Early miscommunications led to a slow start to the project. Details of the partnership were not firmly established prior to the start of OMB which led to confusion. Partnership became a continuous negotiation.
“The overall intent of the partnership between Joint Task Force Empire and the Ministry of Public Works was for our subject matter experts, being the equipment operators and the horizontal engineers, to train the MPoW to maintain the road,” stated Brierton. "They were trained on how to maintain the road and fix parts of the road that still need to be repaired. We purchased gravel and heavy engineer equipment, all of which was turned over to the Afghan Ministry of Public Works.”
“We struggled daily with the concept, implementation and execution.” Wooten recalled. “Our interpretation of what this should be was very different from the on-site supervisor’s, (Afghan National Army) Col. Ataullah, which was very different from his boss’, who was very different from his boss’. Our saving grace lay in our ability to communicate frequently each day with Col. Ataullah. He was very supportive and knew what needed to be done.”
Initial key leader engagements were conducted to establish guidelines on cooperation and equipment availability. In addition to the typical language barrier and limited number of linguists; pay, liability and equipment issues also hampered progress.
“Initial on-site visits prior to OMB led us to believe there was adequate equipment (to conduct the operation),” Wooten said. Once OMB began, it became obvious more construction assets would be needed. “We negotiated daily in regard to equipment use and frequently gained access to critical pieces and we continued with the augmentation of equipment through purchase and the use of military equipment.”
“We purchased seventeen pieces of construction equipment for use during the project and to enable the MoPW to conduct road maintenance through the winter in order to sustain traffic ability, facilitating civilian traffic and critical movements of commerce, goods and services,” Wooten continued. “A maintenance contract was acquired to support and enhance the capabilities of the construction equipment. This proved invaluable as the construction effort was absolutely brutal on the equipment. The removal of multiple layers of pot-holed asphalt inside the tunnel resulted in worn and damaged equipment each day.”
Negotiations between the U.S. and Afghan engineers on construction efforts took place almost daily resulting in a range of participation results. Ultimately, later engagements between the MoPW and Brig. Gen. David L. Weeks, JTF Empire commanding general, resulted in a stronger support of the partnership by all parties. Over time, a broader understanding developed and a stronger partnership developed.
In such a remote location, communications, which are sometimes taken for granted, became even more critical. Even while lacking electrical power during the initial week, the soldiers ensured they maintained contact.
“Basically, communications are something we take for granted wherever we are. We always assume we can pick up a cellphone or a computer and have access to information,” said Capt. Mark R. Bailey, JTF Empire communications chief. Bailey established communications for the operation with a staff of two, then remained on site for the duration of the project to maintain these systems. “The reality is that those types of capabilities are quite complex and are only made easy to use through modern communications systems. In a country such as this, very few of those systems exist, so we have to carry them with us in order to communicate on the battlefield.”
“Communications was a critical part of the planning process,” Bailey explained. “We were given this mission, and we accepted it knowing that it was at an austere environment away from any existing base. Initially, communications were to be limited to Blue Force Tracker, which is a satellite-based messaging system, as well as radio. It was determined that additional capabilities were required in order to meet the commander’s intent. This included digital data services, so we added a satellite data communications system which provided both secure and non-secure data services as well as telephone capabilities and secure video teleconference capabilities.”
These communication requirements included, updates on project status, security related information for force protection, and even morale and welfare for recreational use for the benefit of soldiers the doing the difficult job, so they could maintain communications with their families.
Plunging into the darkness …
Due to the large volume of traffic though the pass, the decision was made to conduct all construction efforts during the night. This increased risk and stressed workers’ abilities to comply with reasonable mitigation measures regarding safety.
“Visibility is limited during night operations regardless of efforts to provide artificial lighting, especially inside a tunnel,” explained Wooten. “We experienced minor vehicle accidents with the construction equipment, even with ground guides. No guard rails are present on this treacherous high mountain pass. Conditions elevated the nightly risk of a vehicle plunging over the edge.”
“By far (the equipment issue) was our most critical and difficult obstacle to overcome,” said Wooten. “Both military and purchased equipment would become non-mission capable each night. We struggled each day, working maintenance issues to get them back up. As luck would have it, we were able to shift efforts relative to the mission capable equipment which kept us on track and moving forward.”
Other issues included: blown transmission and alternators, dead batteries, fuel pump failures, thrown tracks, broken windshields, broken cutting blades on graders, flat tires, civilian vehicle accidents, and cut fiber lines.
“Though we never got behind schedule, our progress was challenged daily by mechanical failures and equipment damage,” emphasized Wooten. “OMB soldiers worked nonstop from the time arrival through the final night (of the operation).”
“Site visits indicated a critical need for quality materials to complete the repairs and enable the MoPW to continue repair efforts through the winter,” said Wooten. “(Existing) repair efforts included local materials extracted from nearby mountains. This material was not suitable for adequate durability on a high trafficked road. It was mostly dirt and large rocks.”
“JTF Empire worked with the local regional contracting command to contract delivery of high quality well-graded aggregate to establish adequate subgrade and a maintainable road surface,” Wooten continued. “More than 800 truckloads of base-course and road surface aggregate were delivered, totaling 15,000 cubic meters.
Portions were used during OMB as we assisted in the immediate repairs prior to winter. The remainder was stockpiled for use in the continued maintenance and follow-on completion of phase two (in the spring of 2013).”
Unusable road surface was removed from the work areas, averaging 10-20 inches in depth. An aggregate road surface was then laid down. An asphalt transition ramp was constructed to merge the concrete road surface with the existing road surface of the tunnel and severe potholes were repaired with asphalt. The engineers worked throughout the night in and around the tunnel, pausing regularly to allow traffic through.
“This highway is the main route between North and South Afghanistan,” Wooten explained. “It is impossible to completely close a road with this much traffic and the single most viable route spanning the Hindu Kush. We experienced continual authorized traffic such as emergency vehicles, wedding and funeral processions, government officials and vehicles supporting other contracted efforts supporting the tunnel and Highway One. Unauthorized vehicles also plagued our efforts, as no strict requirements were established by the ministry traffic control personnel and we could not allow the vehicles to accumulate at our construction sites. Operations had to be managed in such a manner to allow traffic to pass routinely.”
Traffic and darkness were not the only adversaries to the engineers. The elements and environment exacted their toll on the soldiers as well. An elevation change of over 10,000 feet for many soldiers resulted in cases of altitude sickness and exposure.
Sitting on top of the world …
Soldiers of Task Force Red Devils established a temporary patrol base on the north side of the tunnel. Utilizing existing buildings on site, the soldiers were able to provide a suitable area for command and control of the operation, staging equipment, and billeting.
Initially, the staging and living site was austere with no latrine facilities requiring burn out latrines and burn pit. Within two weeks, though, the engineers established latrines, shower and laundry facilities along with a water and trash contract. Additionally, the MoPW assisted with facilities for barracks, maintenance, supply storage and vehicle staging areas.
Route Clearance Patrol 11 established initial security until the Task Force Hydra team members assumed the security mission of the project. While Task Force Muleskinner maintained supplies to the operation, conducting convoy and airdrop operations to the troops on site. The remote location made routine ground supply difficult. The majority of resupply was conducted from the air with directional parachute drops.
Supply and security were not the only concerns for the engineers at the Salang Tunnel. The high altitude, remote location created many challenges from personnel sickness to wildlife.
“The very first day, there was literally a miniature stampede of sheep that ran right through the patrol base,” Bailey recalled. “I had never been through a stampede of any sort, let alone a stampede of sheep.”
“At night we would here very strange sounds coming from the mountainside,” Bailey continued, though he remained unable to determine what was actually making the sounds. He recounted there were also several cats who lived on the base. Though the felines were friendly, soldiers exercised caution around them.
Wooten explained that these issues did not, however, dampen soldiers’ spirits, even though temperatures dropped below freezing most nights and they had to endure two snow storms during September.
“Morale ran high throughout the mission due to the unique circumstances, continual contact with local nationals, and a high sense of accomplishment in regard to assisting the country of Afghanistan,” said Wooten. “The food was the most difficult issue with regard to morale. (Meals, Ready-to-Eat and shipped hot meals) for a month is enough to discourage anyone. This was mitigated by the MoPW. OMB soldiers had access to freshly baked bread and occasionally, freshly cooked rice, beans or lamb. Soldiers (were able to) consume the local food as a welcomed supplement to the military rations.”
“The interaction with local nationals really stood out,” Bailey recalled. “Local Afghans worked there and lived there long before we got there. We established a good neighborly rapport with the local Afghans.”
The light at the end of the tunnel …
OMB completed and exceeded the original mission scope by repairing more than 500 meters of road inside each end of the tunnel and 400 meters approaching each end of the tunnel in addition to 300 meters in gallery 15, further down the route, for a total of more than 2,200 meters of road repair. The entire project was completed 26 days ahead of schedule
“It met the intended goal,” Brierton affirmed after conducting a site survey a month after completion. “The road surface that Empire put down is wearing exceptionally well. It has enabled a safer throughput of traffic. It has set conditions for the start of stage two of USACE’s contract. From this point, USACE can come in now, where we left off, do very minor maintenance on the base we have established and start putting down asphalt.”
“That was an impressive thing the engineers were doing,” said Bailey. “It was not easy work. It’s common knowledge - the absolute critical nature of that mountain pass. From an economic and security standpoint, it is just imperative that it stay open, and personally, I was glad to participate in the mission for those reasons.
”This effort was extremely effective,” Wooten agreed. “Ultimately, we provided the MoPW with equipment and materials sufficient to continue necessary road maintenance through the winter months and beyond. MoPW employees participated in the repairs and learned much needed techniques for repairing the road and conducting routine maintenance. In the end, OMB was successful at training equipment operators and increasing their knowledge of best practices for repairing and maintaining Highway One.”
Article by Staff Sgt. Derek M. Smith, 411th Engineer Brigade