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, 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 about 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level, making it one of the highest road tunnels in the world.
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.
“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.
Movement to the site began in August. Construction started on schedule Sept. 1.
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.
“We struggled daily with the concept, implementation and execution,” recalled Lt. Col. Greg Wooten, 605th Survey and Design Engineer Detachment commander.
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.
“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.
“Communications was a critical part of the planning process,” 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“This effort was extremely effective,” Wooten said. “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.”
By Staff Sgt. Derek M. Smith, 411th Engineer Brigade
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