Canadians build 'small city' near Kandahar

Christ Wattie, National Post, 1 Feb 2006

Military engineers are busy building what will become home to 10,000 soldiers, complete with its own power, water, sewage and fire department.

In this dusty, windswept airfield thousands of kilometres from Canada, a small city is being thrown up in near-record time to accommodate more than 2,000 Canadian troops and their coalition allies arriving this month for a year-long, counter-insurgency mission against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.

Lt.-Col. Paul Fredenburg, a 50-year-old Toronto-born military engineer, is the head of the "public works department" for Kandahar airfield, which will be a city of more than 10,000 by the time he and his crew of engineers are finished.

"We're like municipal engineers -- we do power, water, sewage ... we even have our own fire department," he says with a smile, swerving his military four-wheel drive vehicle around one of the gravel roads that criss-cross the eight-square-kilometre base, wrapped around the Kandahar air strip and surrounded by flat scrub land of the southern Afghan desert.

Lt.-Col. Fredenburg and the 107 military engineers under his command -- "my boys" as he cheerfully calls them -- have been working non-stop since early December to build up the Canadian sector of Kandahar airfield -- "KAF" for short -- complete with its own power stations, water and sewage systems, hospital and the military's version of a city works yard: parking space for hundreds of military vehicles and an ammunition dump to store the tonnes of bullets, shells and explosives needed by the task force.

"It's a really complex job. My boys are working seven days a week, and they're long, long days," he says, careening to a halt in a shower of dust in front of a crew of engineers throwing up a command centre for the Canadian battle group, built around the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which is to replace a U.S. army airborne battalion.

"We were hoping to be where we are now in December. The Americans aren't moving out quite as fast as we'd hoped, and our people are coming in sooner than we'd thought. But it'll get done. You watch."

The Canadian engineers have been labouring under a looming deadline in setting up the $10.5-million Canadian section of the camp, which is also home to American, British, Dutch and Romanian soldiers and hundreds of civilian contractors.

Almost every day for the past two weeks, a Canadian air force Hercules transport has disgorged another load of Canadian soldiers onto the dusty windswept tarmac at Kandahar airfield, building up to an eventual 2,200 troops that will form a battle group and headquarters for what will be Task Force Orion. The Canadian-led task force, made up of Canadian, British and Dutch combat troops, will be responsible for supporting Afghan government forces and hunting down the Taliban fighters who have plagued this southern Afghan province for the past year.

KAF has been a beehive of activity for the past two months, with new buildings or rows of tents going up almost daily, and construction cranes and heavy equipment rumbling through the base at all hours of the day or night. Lt.-Col. Fredenburg says the hectic pace was necessary.

"We'll have our buildings done in about a week," he said. "Just in time for the next rotation."

The engineers have already thrown up a two-storey headquarters building -- sarcastically dubbed the "Taj Mahal" by the troops -- and are working on a set of nine semi-permanent barracks buildings to complement the round-topped "weather haven" tents now housing the soldiers of the battle group.

"It'll take no time at all," Lt.-Col. Fredenburg says confidently. "These things go up just like Lego."

The Canadian-run field hospital is all but finished, featuring two operating rooms, a CAT scanner, radiology and physiotherapy department with more than 125 military medical personnel, most of them Canadian doctors, nurses and medics.

But the work has not gone entirely smoothly. A full-to-the-brim sewage lagoon often sends pungent breezes wafting across the camp, and power outages occasionally darken parts of the base.

"Electrical power is my biggest problem. We don't have enough of it, and what we have doesn't go to the right places," Lt.-Col. Fredenburg says. "And come summer, we're going to need even more."

As well, the need to airlift supplies and equipment into the remote base by Hercules transports has occasionally handcuffed the hard-working engineers.

"There's two Hercs coming in every day with people and cargo ... and it's not enough," he says, looking longingly at an RAF C-17 Globemaster, the huge jet-engined transport plane the Canadian air force has been lobbying successive governments to buy for almost a decade, parked on the runway.

"We're flying in rented Russian cargo planes every day, too."

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