Building the Builders in Afghanistan

Reprint from July/August edition of The Military Engineer
Published July 9, 2015
(Left to right) Gordon Simmons, Chief of Engineering & Construction, USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District; Ahad Wahad, Deputy Mayor of Kabul City;  and Col. Pete Helmlinger, USA, Commander, USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District, discuss engineering challenges in the rapid expansion of Kabul City.

(Left to right) Gordon Simmons, Chief of Engineering & Construction, USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District; Ahad Wahad, Deputy Mayor of Kabul City; and Col. Pete Helmlinger, USA, Commander, USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District, discuss engineering challenges in the rapid expansion of Kabul City.

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, AFGHANISTAN – What if you had to make a choice in which the outcome could impact the gross domestic product of an entire country? Would you be Chief of the Federal Reserve? An executive of a leading international company? A political leader? How about an SAME Post? There was such a choice, and the SAME Savannah Post chose to team with the Transatlantic Afghanistan District (TAA) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) on an action that could well shape the development of construction procedures and material testing in Afghanistan from this point forward.

One of the key tenets that USACE is focused on in Afghanistan is capacity building to further enable the country to self-govern and promote business — in particular, capacity building of engineering and construction skills. The gross domestic product of Afghanistan is $22 billion, which is in the bottom 5 percent of all countries in the world on a per capita basis. Of that $22 billion, approximately 15 percent to 20 percent is attributed to construction. That is significant considering this sector of the economy is increasing in large part thanks to international aid geared toward developing economic growth and strengthening the government. Afghanistan, however, currently has very few governing building codes or processes and practices allowing for consistent known quality in the construction products executed. That could hinder the industry and stymie progress.


TAA is entering into a capacity development partnership with a non-profit organization called the Afghanistan Business Association (ABA). Established through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2004, ABA has been promoting economic development in the construction industry. The purpose of the organization is to support Afghan companies in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the aftermath of war. ABA also serves as a bridge between construction companies and policymakers in government.

In the last few years, ABA has been instrumental in developing processes for adding order, standardization and consistency to construction practices. In 2014, TAA engaged ABA by accrediting the organization to teach the Construction Quality Management Course that is required for contractors working on an $8.4 billion infrastructure build program being executed by the district.

Because of the professional manner in which ABA demonstrated its capability for this training mission, USACE has enacted a further agreement with ABA to assign it with the responsibility for a laboratory verification program. Material testing on soil properties, concrete, water purity and asphalt quality are key factors in successfully completing construction contracts. This testing is so important that only labs validated to perform in accordance with nationally recognized standards are permitted these tasks on USACE contracts. The overall goal of the partnership is to help the Afghanis develop a common standard of acceptance for all government and commercial construction in country.

In addition to the collaboration with USACE, ABA is working with other organizations in the country to develop a professional certification program for engineers and architects, as well as the development of Afghani Construction Standards. However, these construction standards are still years in development. And until such time as there are valid country-specific standards in place in Afghanistan, there is a void in its ability to produce consistent quality construction products.


In order for TAA to turn over responsibilities for the lab validation, ABA needed a set of ASTM International Standards to be able to gauge and validate each test being performed. Consistent and accurate procedures for testing of construction materials is paramount to the quality expected by USACE. Without results that have been obtained by following a known standard of testing, the technical sufficiency of construction materials cannot be guaranteed.

The professionals at ABA are familiar with ASTM requirements. Unfortunately, the cost of obtaining the standards was beyond reasonable means for this group. There are more than 3,600 standards that apply to building codes and construction materials testing needed for this operation. USACE could not reasonably turn over the responsibility of lab validation to ABA if the organization did not have a copy of the standards to assure work was being performed in proper accordance.

USACE looked for ways to fund this effort. However, fiscal constraints on using taxpayer funds prevented TAA from purchasing the standards for ABA. The district then reached out to the Savannah Post, which quickly agreed to purchase the standards and then gift them to ABA.

TAA Commander Col. Pete Helmlinger, USA, praised the gesture as great news. “We appreciate the generosity of the Savannah SAME Post!” he wrote in an email. “Your Post is making a difference building partner capacity through the Afghan Builders Association by donating this ASTM set.”

Brig. Gen. Donald Jackson, USA, then USACE Transatlantic Division Forward Commander, also applauded the contribution. “The Savannah Post’s support in this effort helps make possible the prosperity of an entire nation-state,” he said. “Their eagerness to provide resources where a pressing need exists is a reflection on the character of their organization.”

Throughout the world, SAME members work hand-in-hand with government and private design firms and construction contractors to provide education and support to engineering communities within the military and other government agencies. The goal is to advance the partnership between government and the architectural, engineering and construction industry. When the Savannah Post heard that ABA was in need of the ASTM Standards, it immediately saw the value of this endeavor and the way that it aligned perfectly with SAME’s goal of advancing this type of partnership.


With the proven skills of the ABA staff, and now with these standards as the tools needed to perform the work, TAA has the greatest confidence that the delegation of this important laboratory validation program to ABA will be a success.

The organization already has a business plan in place and legislative support to increase this type of service and become even more impactful. ABA intends to expand the lab verification program and several other construction related services into the common construction market-place, establishing new business practice for Afghanistan, and helping the country to further gain self-sufficiency.


Gordon Simmons, P.E., M.SAME, is Chief of Engineering, USACE Savannah District, and currently deployed as Chief, Engineering & Construction Division, USACE Transatlantic Afghanistan District; 540-722-1167, or