Logo: University of Southern California

From Kabul, With Love

USC Viterbi Alumnus Col. Michael Price leads efforts to build a better Afghanistan
By: Marc Ballon
May 28, 2014 —

Col. Michael Price (left) in the field in Afghanistan, where he oversees rebuilding efforts
It has some of the most unforgiving terrain in the world, a landlocked, mountainous country plagued by frostbitten winters and blazingly hot summers. “But the worst o’ your foes is the sun over’ead/You must wear your ‘elmet for all that is said/If ‘e find you uncovered ‘e’ll knock you down dead,” British poet Rudyard Kipling wrote in “The Young British Soldier.”

Soaked in the blood from many an invading army, including the 19th-century British and 20th-century Soviets, Afghanistan remains to this day a ruggedly beautiful but desolate outpost suitable for only the hardiest of souls. Add acute economic underdevelopment and ethnic and tribal violence to the mix and Afghanistan becomes even more forbidding.

It’s also the place that Col. Michael Price proudly calls home.

In July 2013, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering alumnus came to Afghanistan to lead the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s efforts to help rebuild the war-torn country before America’s departure. As head of the Transatlantic Afghanistan District, Price oversees 330 Americans, who, in cooperation with Afghan contractors, work on about 250 projects, mainly the construction of airfields, barracks, medical facilities and other key infrastructure initiatives that will benefit the Afghan National Army and police. He also supervises several civilian projects, including a $10-million women’s dorm at Herat University that will house 113 students.

“I believe in the mission here. I could have gone to Washington, D.C., but I came here because I believe we need to finish what we’ve started,” said Price, who is based in Kabul, the capital. “We’re making history for the [US Army] Corps [of Engineers] and for the United States. I believe Afghanistan has a bright future in front of it.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the repressive Taliban, who provided sanctuary to Al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin-Laden. The Taliban’s defeat has benefitted many Afghans. In April, “The Economist” reported a tenfold increase in the number of Afghans with access to basic healthcare; the proliferation of television channels and newspapers; and millions of new children, including girls, now receiving an education.

Whenever Price travels around Afghanistan to projects, he said, locals thank him and the Americans for “taking back their country” and for providing work and opportunity.

One project that has garnered considerable goodwill is the upgrade of the Salang Tunnel, a 1.6-mile pass that connects the north to Kabul. Built by the Soviets in 1964, the tunnel fell into such disrepair that truckers trapped inside during extreme traffic jams occasionally died from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Under Price’s supervision, a team of Afghan contractors repaved the road and added new lighting and exhaust fans. The new-and-improved Salang Tunnel opened in December 2013. The result: gridlock has largely vanished and internal trade has flourished.

“I’m making an impact every day,” said Price, who is on his fourth military deployment in Afghanistan. “I’m a planner, organizer, trouble-shooter. I do a bit of everything.”

Price’s days are long and challenging. He typically wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to call his wife and son back in Michigan. Then it’s breakfast, exercise three times a week and then 10- to 12-hour workdays. Whenever possible, he goes to project sites throughout the country. However, security concerns often keep him away. (More than 3,500 coalition troops, mostly American, have died since the U.S. invasion 13 years ago.) Adding to Price’s difficulties are frequent delays in shipments of water heaters, generators, electrical components and other important items through the oft-closed Pakistani border with Afghanistan.

The myriad of challenges can sometimes wear on him. He admitted to missing fishing and hunting back home, along with precious time with loved ones. And then there’s his home deck with the lake view, where he used to spend time decompressing.

Still, Price said he treasures his time in Afghanistan. To communicate with the local population, he has learned a little Farsi. “It says a lot to an Afghan when you try to speak their language,” he said. He has also read vociferously about the region, counting Steve Coll’s “The Ghost Wars,” which details America’s secret history in Afghanistan, and Khaled Hosseini’s novel, “The Kite Runner,” among his favorites.

Price is no stranger to Afghanistan. He arrived in 2002 to plan combat operations and returned two years later for the same duties. During his third tour of duty in 2006 and 2007, Price trained and deployed an entire battalion to Afghanistan and successfully oversaw its return to the U.S. His battalion suffered not a single casualty.

“He is the epitome of a leader,” said Maj. Steve Holmberg, who has known Price for 12 years and served as his adjutant for the 41st Engineering battalion in Fort Drum, New York. “He always leads from the front, with his words and actions consistently aligned.”

A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, Price earned a Master of Science degree in systems engineering from USC Viterbi in 1993 though a now defunct satellite campus in Wuerzburg, Germany – one of his four master’s degrees. The USC program, he said, “taught me how to think scientifically and thoroughly."

A 25-year Army veteran, Price has served around the globe, from Kansas City to Germany to Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. With the U.S. poised to exit Afghanistan at year’s end, he probably won’t have a fifth tour of duty after his term expires at the end of July. However, that doesn’t mean he’ll ever forget the place.

“I’ve told the Afghans that I hope one day to bring my family here as tourists,” Price said. “This is a beautiful country, and I would like to share it with them.”