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Taliban fighters block a $266 million USAID project to finish the dam, thwarting a key piece of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.
KAJAKI, Afghanistan — In the shadow of the Kajaki Dam's towering earthworks, a small, unassuming building discharges two thunderous jets of frothing water into the turquoise Helmand River below.
A maze of wires and cables stretches from the building and retreats buzzing into the surrounding mountains and then into a patchwork of Soviet-era electrical grids that provide intermittent and insufficient power to the region.
The drab building is the powerhouse of the Kajaki Dam Hydroelectric Power Plant, which has cost considerable blood and money, a level of sacrifice that does not compare well with the limited amount of power it yields. At least 40 U.S. and British troops have died in fighting in this area as well as hundreds of Afghan soldiers and civilians. Tens of millions of U.S. dollars have been spent already to keep the dam operational through the past decade of war on top of a new $266 million contract from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to increase the dam’s capacity.
One of the largest and most unwieldy development projects the U.S. government has undertaken in Afghanistan, the Kajaki Dam is part of a multi-billion dollar effort by President Obama’s administration to step up civilian aid to Afghanistan in tandem with the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency strategy. Experts on international development in Afghanistan and Washington criticize the Kajaki Dam project for its lack of oversight.
U.S. and Afghan officials openly concede that huge contracts like the one at Kajaki often end up putting money in the hands of the Taliban through Afghan subcontractors who are forced to pay protection to keep workers from being killed by insurgents. In an interview with General David Petraeus in Kabul just before he was tapped to head up the CIA, the commander said, “There’s no question that we have to make sure money is not ending up in the hands of the bad guys. We have to do better at managing these projects and we’ve put together guidelines for contracting to do that.”
“There’s little evidence that this kind of aid is providing stability. In fact it actually can have a destabilizing impact.”~Andrew Wilder, director, United States Institute for Peace
In the end of the day, critics say that the Kajaki Dam embodies the futility of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Andrew Wilder, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan for the United States Institute for Peace with more than two decades experience in delivering aid in the region, has been sharply critical of such huge contracts with insufficient oversight: “There’s little evidence that this kind of aid is providing stability. In fact it actually can have a destabilizing impact.”
The Long View
Afghan and USAID officials involved in the project counter critics, saying the dam does indeed pose extraordinary challenges, but it also provides an extraordinary opportunity to deliver much-needed power to the region.
Few have a better sense of the long view of history on this dam than Sayed Rasoul, a well-spoken engineer from Kabul, who manages the power plant and has worked there for 34 years. Through an extraordinary engineering career that spans the Soviet occupation, the civil war, the Taliban control and now the U.S. presence, Rasoul says his job has always been as much about running the plant as about simultaneously appeasing the military forces that throughout history fight for control of this land.
Right now, Rasoul explained, there are two opposing Afghan governments that both operate in this area. One is the Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai that issues orders from Kabul and the other is a shadow government of the Taliban which seems to have a more firm grip on the daily operations of this region.
Both of these rival governments want more electricity from the dam and the ability to collect the revenue and political loyalty that would come from the surrounding populace in exchange for it. But neither the central government nor the local Taliban rulers seem to understand that the country's aging transmission grid can carry only a finite amount, according to Rasoul.
Kajaki's powerhouse, built by American engineers in 1975, contains two hydroelectric turbines and has room for a third, which would significantly increase the capacity of energy the dam can provide. In 2008, British forces mounted a huge operation to bring components of a third turbine in by force.