Watershed of Waste: Afghanistan’s Kajaki Dam and USAID

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.”

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, 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 challenges in Kajaki can be overcome.

“The situation in Kajaki is extremely kinetic,” acknowledged one USAID official. “Kinetic” is U.S. military jargon for actual fighting; Kajaki is a battle zone.

“In designing this project, we are very much the cart,” continued the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The horse is security, but that is the responsibility of the military.”

So far, it seems, the horse is missing in action.

“We will not do this project if the contractors cannot be secure,” said the official. “But we have yet to come up with a plan. The project will go forward if and when security is achieved.”

The Kajaki project is due to be completed by June 2013. 

“We will never let the Americans do anything here”

The problems in Kajaki are not new. As far back as 2005, electricity in Helmand and Kandahar was an iffy proposition.

Insurgents would regularly shoot out the power lines that passed through Sangin district and other volatile areas, and even when the cables were intact there was not enough power for the two major provinces.

The Kajaki Dam was built in the 1950s, when the United States had turned Helmand into what was known as “Little America,” with hundreds of contractors acting as implementers of a U.S. foreign policy effort to keep Afghanistan out of the Soviet orbit. The power plant was added in the 1970s.

The original pans called for three turbines at Kajaki; only two were ever installed, and by 2001 these were both in bad shape. Kajaki was an early focus of international development, but security was a problem almost from the outset.

In 2008 the British mounted a daring operation to bring the third turbine to Kajaki.

The delivery of the turbine was hailed by the London Times as an epic undertaking, named “Eagle Summit” by the military. The British press gushed over it:

“This was the moment when British troops completed one of their most complex and daring operations since the Second World War: outfoxing the Taliban to deliver a giant new turbine to the Kajaki Dam in the southern Afghan province of Helmand. In doing so they marked a turning point that NATO commanders hope will prove decisive in the battle for Afghan hearts and minds.” 

But three years later the turbine still sits, crated, where the British offloaded it; and the hearts and minds it was supposed to sway are more stony and unresponsive than ever.

In order to install the turbine, a platform needs to be erected at the dam. More than 700 tons of cement and other construction materials will have to be brought in to Kajaki — something most people in the know say will never happen.

In 2007, one enterprising Helmand resident with close links to the Taliban said he was approached by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the capital, Lashkar Gah, and asked if he could get the cement into the area. As he recounted the conversation for GlobalPost, the Helmand resident was told by the PRT that money was no object. He said he was told that any surcharge he had to pay, including payments to the Taliban, would be covered; any conditions he set would be considered. Based on extensive reporting by GlobalPost, congressional hearings and investigations by USAID such deals are not uncommon. But this one was impractical, according to the Helmand resident.

After consulting with his insurgent friend, the young entrepreneur regretfully declined what would have been a very lucrative offer.

“There is not enough money in the world to get the cement and other materials in there,” he said. “The Taliban are determined that this project will never go through.”

According to Qari Yusuf Ahmadi, the Taliban have begun special operations in Kajaki, and have confined the American troops to their bases. They cannot travel except in convoys, and when they do venture out they come under attack.

A New Deal in the Making?

Local officials within Helmand’s provincial government say that they, along with their foreign advisors, have attempted to make a deal with the Taliban, based on the 2007 Musa Qala pact.

In Musa Qala, tribal elders, the international troops and the Taliban agreed to adhere to strict conditions in order to create a security perimeter around the district. The deal broke down within a few months, and the Taliban took over.

Now, it seems, a similar effort is underway to create a bit of breathing space for the Kajaki project, with the elders in a district near the dam, Sarwan Qala.

“The elders have the power in Sarwan Qala, and are trying to get a ceasefire,” said an advisor to Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But the governor is afraid that the treaty of Sarwan Qala will break up just like Musa Qala.”

But even if some sort of deal is struck, it will almost certainly involve massive payments to the insurgents. As GlobalPost has pointed out in previous reports, U.S. assistance money all too often makes its way to Taliban coffers. 

Any contractor working in the area will be forced to pay some sort of premium for protection, which will likely go to the Taliban. Otherwise, the work simply will not get done.

Even without protection payments from contractors, the Taliban will reap a lot of cash from Kajaki. Indeed, they already do: in the parts of the district under Taliban control — and both local residents and provincial officials say that most of Kajaki is with the insurgents — the Taliban are collecting the revenue from the power plant.

“All of Kajaki, north and south, is under the control of the Taliban,” said Hajji Abdul Ahad Khan, a tribal elder in Kajaki and a former district governor of Greshk. “The government forces are only on their bases in the central part of the district. Security is difficult to maintain in Kajaki; a large number of forces would be necessary to waken the Taliban. The government does not have the power to collect revenue here, so all the payments for electricity go to the Taliban. If the government cannot even collect its own money, how can it maintain relations with the people?”

Hearts and Minds

If, as the U.S. forces continue to insist, the Kajaki Dam project was designed as a centerpiece of the counterinsurgency (COIN), then Afghan residents of the area and tribal leaders say it has been a failure so far.

COIN depends on winning the support of the local population, protecting them from the insurgents and convincing them that they are better of with their own government.

But with Kajaki almost entirely under Taliban control, the work on the dam stalled for years, and aggressive military operations making their lives miserable, local residents see little to make them optimistic.

“We are tired of our lives, with these international troops in the district,” said a local man named Khudaidad, whose last name is being withheld by GlobalPost like all residents interviewed in this area to protect their identity. “Many people have been killed or had their homes destroyed. I wish the Americans would just pave the roads and leave. They have their own objectives, but our people are suffering.”

Another Kajaki native, Ismatullah, said that he does not care who controls the area, as long as there is peace.

“Neither the Taliban nor the Americans are going to feed us,” he said. “The other day I was with two women and the Taliban fired on us. But the United States does not care about us either. If we go fast around their convoys the U.S. forces will kill us. If we help the United States the Taliban will kill us; if we help the Taliban the U.S. forces will kill us. We want the Americans to leave our country. We will be happy and at peace when they go.”

(GlobalPost’s Charles M. Sennott contributed reporting to this story from Afghanistan and Washington.)

(GlobalPost funding for human rights reporting on stories like these is provided in part by a grant from the Galloway Family Foundation.)

This story is presented by The GroundTruth Project.