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The dam embodies USAID's unwieldy and corrupted Afghan development projects.
Taliban fighters block the dam's completion, thwarting U.S. strategy.

Watershed of Waste: Afghanistan’s Kajaki Dam and USAID

The Kajaki Dam embodies the corruption and unintended consequences of the huge, unwieldy development projects USAID undertakes in Afghanistan.

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Editor’s Note: The project to refurbish the Kajaki Dam, is a watershed of waste. The much-vaunted, $266-million dollar project in southern Afghanistan has little chance of being completed on schedule, say both U.S. and Afghan officials. Worse still, a major beneficiary for any work that the implementers do manage to finish will almost certainly be the Taliban. Over the last three months, GlobalPost has investigated the Kajaki dam, talking with U.S. and Afghan officials in Kabul, getting rare access to the dam itself and asking questions in Washington as well. — C.M. Sennott

KABUL, Afghanistan — The “what” was never in doubt: A third turbine for the Kajaki Dam, to refurbish a power plant built by U.S. engineers in the 1970s, boosting power for the key Afghan provinces of the south. Also included in the ambitious project was a diesel generator for Kandahar city, to keep that all-important center humming.

The “why” was also fairly obvious: the Kajaki project was billed as the linchpin of the military effort in Helmand and Kandahar, both frontline provinces in the counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban. Providing energy to more than 1.7 million residents of the volatile, insurgency-plagued area would allow the local community to increase production, assuring them of a better life, generating gratitude and good will towards the central government and international forces, and weaning the populace away from the Taliban.

This was to win “hearts and minds,” to use the military parlance of counterinsurgency (COIN).

The only problem was the “how.”

“We will never let the Americans do anything here, whether installing the turbines or any other project.”
~Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, Taliban spokesman

In a region almost completely under Taliban control, access to the dam was problematic, to say the least. The insurgents are determined that no U.S.-backed project will ever see the light of day, and are ready to fight to stop it. Thus, any progress in Kajaki comes at tremendous cost in terms of blood and treasure, with the local population increasingly angry at the destruction to their homes and livelihoods.

More than eight years after the first contract was issued to refurbish the dam, and with a new award of $266 million on the table to a company with a documented record of cost overruns in Afghanistan, the Kajaki Dam project is further from completion than ever.

(Read the second part of the series: Afghanistan's Doomed Dam.)

Last month, USAID director Rajiv Shah traveled to Afghanistan and made the dangerous journey by helicopter into the area of the Kajaki Dam. Two officials who met with him said the visit was recognition from the top that the project is stalled and facing extraordinary challenges. It was, they said, an attempt by Shah to see first-hand a project that has come to symbolize how the U.S. has its hands tied in Afghanistan with projects that are too ambitious in areas where the military can not provide security. Some critics say there is also insufficient auditing and oversight of projects on this scale, and that they often fall prey to corruption. To anyone who lives near the dam or officials who have traveled there, it is clear the Taliban is in control of Kajaki.

And according to a Taliban spokesman, Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, whom GlobalPost reached by phone, the project is doomed as long as fighters under Taliban control hold the area.

“We will never let the Americans do anything here, whether installing the turbines or any other project,” said Ahmadi. “The Americans have their own aims behind every project, they never do anything which is good for Islam, they are misleading our people. We have a saying, ‘There is always a back story behind every story.’ This is why we say that no U.S. projects are acceptable.”

A Troubled Contract, a Flawed Company

Last December, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded a whopping $266 million contract on a non-compete basis to Black & Veatch, a global engineering company headquartered in Kansas. Its corporate slogan is “Building a World of Difference,” but the company reportedly has a spotty history of implementation in Afghanistan and a reputation for cost overruns.

Eyebrows were raised all over Washington, D.C. and Kabul, Afghanistan when it was announced earlier this year that it was being awarded the contract in a non-competitive bidding process. Why did Black & Veatch receive such preferential treatment, industry and government officials asked,

Watershed of Waste: Afghanistan's Kajaki Dam and USAID Additional Articles