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I'm having a pleasant weekend at home, getting my fly fishing gear ready for an outing next week, reading the excellent George Kennan biography (see the review by Henry Kissinger), and just generally lazing around. But the biggest reason why I'm having a pleasant weekend is that I am not the Director of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) today.
As you may have read in the WaPo, the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan has declined to occupy the newly-completed interim consulate facility in Mazar-e-Sharif due to concerns about its poor security. It was newly completed by OBO. Completed at what the WaPo reports was a cost of $80 million. And now it's worthless.
As Domani Spero pointed out earlier today, that's a lot of money and wishful thinking down the drain, leaving behind a lot of good questions that now need to be answered.
The WaPo has a leaked memo, reportedly signed by the DCM in Kabul and dated this past January, which documents serious security deficiencies of the interim facility. The memo is reported to be "previously undisclosed" but the WaPo does not say that it is classified. I have seen nothing as of now that indicates the memo is classified, as opposed to just "leaked," therefore, it seems to be fair game for public comment by me.
I'll do a point-by-point reaction to the memo snippets that were quoted in the WaPo. But first, let's go to what will be the the most often commented upon feature of the interim facility. I refer, of course, to the manure.
"The structure’s outer perimeter wall is composed of sun-dried bricks made from mud, straw and manure, and the contractor used untreated timber for the roof, the memo says".
Now, bricks made of sun-dried mud, often with straw and manure added to the mix to reduce cracking, are usually known as "adobe." Adobe is a time-honored construction material. Some of the oldest structures in existence today were built with adobe. The bricks have excellent thermal properties. Plus, it's all 100% organic, locally-sourced, and produced by small entrepreneurs, so hippies ought to like it. No large corporations are involved in producing it, so Occupy Wall Street ought to embrace it.
|Mud bricks drying|
The interim facility already had a perimeter wall made of sun-dried mud bricks when OBO leased the place. It is not clear to me that it necessarily needed to be replaced with a wall made of something else, especially when the facility was to be a short-term fix. Perimeters can be upgraded by supplemental measures, anyway.
But forget it! "Mud and manure" makes the perfect laugh line for a Congressional oversight hearing.
The interim consular facility in Mazar was not constructed by OBO. It is a short-term leased property, the former Mazar Hotel. OBO's plan was to fit-out and refurbish the place as office and residential space for 37 'desk positions' plus support staff, in response to an urgent requirement from Special Envoy Holbrooke to establish a diplomatic presence in Northern Afghanistan. A permanent facility elsewhere in Mazar was to follow. (I take those details from a published official report on U.S. civilian uplift in Afghanistan.)
That is the kind of hasty acquisition and fit-out that OBO has done many times before. Waivers of security standards and public law (here) are almost always necessary in those situations, and the WaPo reports that it was necessary in Mazar. That alone is not particularly notable.
The embassy's key concerns with the finished product, as reported by the WaPo, are:
"The embassy memo says the facility was far from ideal from the start ... The space between the outer perimeter wall and buildings inside — a distance known as “setback” in war zone construction — was not up to U.S. diplomatic standards ... "
I am not surprised. The setback distance required by standards is 30 meters, as noted in many publicly available sources, including 12 FAM 300, and it is notoriously difficult to find an available existing urban property with that much setback.
"The complex was surrounded by several tall buildings from which an attack could easily be launched."
That one also leaves me unsurprised. Nearly any building in nearly any city will have taller buildings within the effective range of commonly available small arms, which is about 500 meters in the case of the RPG, for example.
"Among the corners cut in the interest of expediency, the memo says, was failing to assess how well the facility could withstand a car bombing, a task normally carried out by the department’s Bureau of Overseas Building Operations ... "
This strikes me as the most serious of the concerns reported. Sheer reality dictates that some security standards may have to be waived to inhabit a preexisting building, but how can we know whether we are accepting an unreasonable amount of risk for the employees posted in Mazar unless we have a clear idea of how large a bomb it would take to knock the building down?
"We believe the survey will show that a [car bomb] would cause catastrophic failure of the building in light of the local construction techniques and materials,”[DCM] Kelly wrote. The structure’s outer perimeter wall is composed of sun-dried bricks made from mud, straw and manure, and the contractor used untreated timber for the roof, the memo says."
I'm not so sure. Maybe it would catastrophically fail, but not merely because the building is of local construction. Anyway, what basis does the DCM have for his belief it would collapse? How will we know unless a blast vulnerability study is conducted? Presumably, OBO will not conduct one now. Regarding the mud-and-manure perimeter wall, a perimeter wall has nothing to do with the structure of a separate building, so it really doesn't matter as regards blast survivability.
"The entire compound is surrounded by buildings with overwatch and there is almost no space on the compound that cannot be watched, or fired upon, from an elevated position outside the compound”
As I said above, any city will have elevated positions outside the compound. A city in mountainous terrain, like Mazar, will have more of them than most.
And so, the first finger of blame has been pointed. Will OBO point one back?
OBO might have some cause. According to page 12 of this interview with a Foreign Service Officer who served in Mazar from December 2009 to June 2011 and helped to prepare for the opening of the Consulate, the post insisted on at least one expensive and time-consuming change to OBO's original plans.
Q. This one is not a hardened facility [referring to the interim consulate in the Mazar Hotel]? I thought that’s how we build these things.That many security windows would cost a good chunk of change, and installing them in a preexisting building might cause even more expensive building structural complications. Was that a reasonable change to make for a temporary building? I can't say, but, it is exactly the kind of thing that OBO might cite in its own defense.
A. This is a temporary facility and it is being constructed with a number of security construction waivers. It meets the minimum security requirements and in fact we had several visits by OBO (State Department Overseas Buildings Office) leadership and one of the reasons for the delay in the project is, it was decided to replace all of the 104 windows in the facility with the 15 minute FEBR (Force Ballistic Resistant) windows rather than a locally constructed compromise, which would have been five minute windows. By the time that these were ordered, manufactured, air freighted, and installed, the project was set back four to five months.
This promises to get good. I mean, it does for those of us who don't work in OBO or Mazar.