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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.

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.)

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