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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.

when USAID had, according to the Associated Press, chastised the company for its last project, the Tarakhil power plant near Kabul, for being over budget and past deadline?

In 2010, when USAID decided to make another stab at providing power to southern Afghanistan, a project its own internal documentation termed “critical,” it seems puzzling that it would turn to Black & Veatch to come forward with a proposal, which was ultimately accepted. USAID said at the time that Black & Veatch was “uniquely qualified” and “uniquely positioned” to get the work done quickly.

But the congressionally mandated Commission for Wartime Contracting, which launched a new round of hearings this fall, pointed out in a fairly contentious report in January of this year that USAID’s claim that the firm was “uniquely positioned” simply meant they were “already on the ground.”

A rival company, Symbion, had expected to be allowed to bid on the contract, and was reportedly “stunned” when the news of the no-bid award was announced. Symbion, which was a sub-contractor on the Tarakhil plant, is currently locked in a legal dispute with Black & Veatch over the earlier project.

George Minter, Black & Veatch director of media relations, issued a response to a list of GlobalPost questions by email last week, dismissing most of the criticism against the firm and defending its record of performance on contracts in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Minter said when the Kajaki project is completed and the third turbine is installed, the plant will provide a capacity of 51 megawatts of power to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which would be an increase of nearly 50 percent over the current 34.5 megawatts of power it provides.

“Black & Veatch has a substantial record of accomplishments in southern Afghanistan, including successful capacity building of Afghan staff capabilities to address power needs,” he wrote. “The company is now focused on delivering high-quality project results in an area of substantial hostile threats.”

Minter added that the most recent evaluation of the company’s performance by USAID at the Tarakhil power plant was rated as “good” and that in Kajaki they “remain on schedule” within the “target milestone agreed on by USAID.”

USAID’s Director of Technical Services in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gordon Weynand, said that USAID chief Shah’s recent visit was aimed a “looking at where we are at the moment.”

“Getting power to Helmand and Kandahar is a priority to the U.S. government,” he said.

He added that there were challenges in linking USAID with the U.S. military and the Afghan military and government officials in the area to make this project happen.

“Can everything be linked up?” he said. “That’s the situation we’re examining.”

The point, Weynand added, is that the project “supports the overall stability of Afghanistan and it meets our goals of stabilizing Afghanistan.”

U.S. Representative Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts who as a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has been active in investigating contracting in Afghanistan, said in an interview with GlobalPost, “Kajaki Dam was supposed to be a show piece of the strategy in Afghanistan, but it has gone nowhere. “

“We can’t keep on taking on lofty projects in insecure areas, especially not when we end up having the money go to the bad guys in the process,” said Markey, underscoring the fact that in many projects such as Kajaki the Taliban is collecting what amounts to protection money through local subcontractors, a story that GlobalPost first reported in 2009.

“This is what this committee needs to do, we have to keep digging on this,” added Markey. 

“Cart Before the Horse”

Despite reservations in Congress, USAID officials in Kabul and Washington cheerlead for the project. They are enthusiastic about the correlation between energy and Gross Domestic Product. They are fluent in explaining why the Kajaki Dam project is important. They have the figures at their fingertips, along with a fierce determination to complete the project.

“The third turbine will go in,” said one USAID source in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But these are energy professionals, whose expertise is very much on the technical side. While they can quote chapter and verse on megawatts and output benchmarks, they know very little about the actual situation in the area, or how the security

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