Thursday, June 23, 2011

Preparing for the last battle: Lessons from Afghanistan

Interesting piece published in the NY Times about missed opportunities in U.S. efforts to improve Afghan infrastructure. This is not a strictly DOD energy story, but it should inform thinking about future operations and our own infrastructure challenges at home. The article, written by Patricia McArdle, reports on a number of efforts to bring energy security and other infrastructure projects to the Afghan people that went awry because we failed to understand the territory. In her 12 months as a political advisor with the Department of State, Ms. McArdle had a front row seat to observe the outcomes of many well intended plans. Standard operating procedures tell you what to do in a given set of circumstances. If that “given set of circumstances” do not exist, there is no SOP. We must reward innovation and not always compliance.

Despite a 2004 Department of Energy study of Afghanistan energy sources that “ revealed abundant renewable energy resources that could be used to build small-scale wind- and solar-powered systems to generate electricity and solar thermal devices for cooking and heating water”, the U.S. brought in diesel generators and created a critical vulnerability.

International building codes dictated that the U.S. build concrete and cinderblock buildings for local projects, resulting in buildings that were hot in summer and cold in winter. The Afghan locals build with “cob — a mixture of mud, sand, clay and chopped straw molded to form durable, elegant, super-insulated, earthquake-resistant structures. With their thick walls, small windows and natural ventilation, traditional Afghan homes may not comply with international building codes, but they are cooler in summer and warmer in winter than cinder-block buildings”. I first noticed this when, then Colonel T.C. Moore, USMC, head of the Marine Corps Energy Assessment Team (or as we liked to call him, the MEAT Head) pointed it out while we were visiting COB Payne in Southern Afghanistan. “You know, there’s a reason they build them that way” T.C. mused, “What don’t we get?”.

Even when DOD tried a renewable project in support of our Afghan partners, they looked through their own filters, not the locals. An example can be found in Dina Maron’s article about an Army Corps of Engineers' plan running into trouble with a wind project in Afghanistan. A plan to build a 1 MW wind turbine for the Afghan equivalent of my Rock Bound Highland Home (West Point) went poorly. Problem was that the guy who drew the blueprints hadn’t walked the road. The 300 ton crane necessary for this behemoth couldn’t navigate the terrain. A U.S. solution (huge, centralized power) is not necessarily the answer in less developed regions. Typically, in Afghan wind project one sees small, distributed generation and it is for a reason. A hundred 10KWs would have been more manageable in this terrain.

In the great book, “America’s First Battles, 1776-1965” edited by Charles E. Heller and William A. Stofft, we learned that American’s tend to prepare for the first battle of the next war based upon how they fought the last battle of the previous war. This book changed American Military doctrine in a very positive way. We needed to be steeped in the past, not mired in it. After World War II, America helped rebuild Japan and Germany with 1950s technology. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have done the same thing: good, solid 1950s technology. Our model was big power plants and a larger grid, because that is what worked for America… and …Japan and …Germany. We must not prepare for the next battle with the tools of the last. Dan Nolan


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I was a Civil Affairs Officer in Afghanistan in 2005-06 assigned to CFC-A PMI. Anywhere else it would be called CJ-9. I was the sole LNO with MRRD, MPW, and DDP. (Yes - it was a broad portfolio.) I was very keen to push distributed micro-power solutions. I was very much aware the Afghan government, through MRRD, had already put the kibosh on desiel generators. The many problems, from fuel to oil, to maintenance were clear and bright to anyone with two clicking synapses.

A smart Texas National Guard 1LT had developed a wind generator that worked, was sustainable and suitable for the minor power needs of small Afghan village offices. It was perfectly suited for local manufacturing. This was an important element – it could be readily and easily fabricated with locally available materials. The expensive part was the relative cheap and robust inverter. It worked well and I still have all the info. A few were built in Logar province and then we rotated out before the project got a head of steam. An easy excuse would be “it was lost in the sauce.” It worked, was cheap and could lead a small local industry, in multiple towns and villages . At 1.25 – 2 kw with batteries, it was plenty for a small government post or a home.

There was a private venture, a NGO, developing micro-hydro. It was a good solution for villages in or near fast running mountain streams. Though Afghanistan is a hot and dry, there was enough water in the mountains to power a small village clusters. Just a little diversion dam, a flume, a pipe and a small generator. The night time off peak load was a water heater, providing the village hot water in the morning and a place for the ladies to gather briefly and commiserate (or gossip). This NGO wisely choose to not get pulled into the military’s orbit. He did not want to be dependent on our finicky funding priorities, he wanted his autonomy and the Army’s money came with too many strings.

COL Handy