Remember that time Michael Yon bravely reported the “top secret” mission to refurbish the Kajaki hydro plant? The same top secret mission ISAF bragged about in a press release on the very same day? It seemed like a wonderful thing, a stunning blow both to the Taliban in Helmand (who couldn’t stop its transportation and installation), and to the naysayers who are convinced there is no hope for the country.
Last year, when Rory Stewart was preaching about his “grand infrastructure” idea (later transmogrified, sans explanation, into a muted call for a neo-light footprint strategy), this seemed like the best idea ever: a huge, undeniable, expensive symbol of the West’s commitment to Afghanistan. While praising his intentions, Carl Robichaud tossed water on the idea given its impracticalities, especially since the combat in nearby Sangin Valley was so brutal.
It is the sort of context missing from most accounts of the operation, and so the operation was exuberantly declared by all a success upon delivery. The context of the last few years—including the salient information that not just Taliban commanders but opium kingpins do not want a big expensive dam providing electricity to farmers disinclined to support them—helps to inform why Carlotta Gall would write such a pessimistic take on where the delivered turbine and power stations are nearly two months later:
It has been a rare instance of a fulfilled promise in the effort to build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure. But even with the step forward, the improvements to the dam, in an inaccessible area of northern Helmand Province, are still being held hostage by the Taliban’s growing ability to mount offensives in recent years. The overall power project has been repeatedly delayed because of the difficulty of security and logistics. And the rest of the original $500 million proposal to augment the capacity of the dam itself has not been approved, cast in doubt by the Taliban’s gains.
“In the case of the Kajaki Dam or others, the security situation impedes the delivery of the service,” the American ambassador to Afghanistan, William B. Wood, told reporters in Washington in June. “The reason that there isn’t more light at night and more warmth in winter for south Afghanistan is because the Taliban has not let us do everything, work as effectively as we’d like to on the Kajaki Dam.” …
The huge operation was criticized in the British news media, which questioned the exposure of British soldiers to such high risk to save an American government assistance project.
Yet for the Afghans employed here, and the frustrated residents of cities like Kandahar, who have lived with barely a few hours of electricity a day for the past seven years, NATO was belatedly meeting its commitment to bring development to southern Afghanistan…
Mr. Rasoul is now in charge of the next stage, with an American engineer, George H. Wilder, 62, who works for the American contractors in charge of the project, the Louis Berger Group. They work and live in a small construction camp next to the dam, protected by a battalion of British and Afghan soldiers who keep the Taliban, who hold the surrounding villages, at bay. Everything the workers and soldiers need comes by helicopters that fly high over the brown, barren mountains and then spiral down over the green-blue reservoir into the camp to avoid enemy fire.
This remains remarkable: a Berlin Airlift for southern Afghanistan, if you will. But the fundamental objection to it remains: is it smart to build an expensive, borderline indefensible power station when you cannot provide basic security and services to the nearby villagers? This turbine camp represents, along with all the hope and sunshine, an enormous, juicy target for militants or drug lords seeking a way to poison the entire southern effort. While it’s nice that the camp “rarely comes under [direct] fire anymore” thanks to some impressive soldiering by the British, how long will those gains stay in play once the turbine is installed and the power substations set up? Will an entire battalion be required to defend each?
The south faces enormous challenges, among them basic security and economics. Kajaki has been considered too dangerous for development work for many years at this point. Other places in Helmand—Lashkar Gah, for example—have far bigger needs than a few more hours of electricity per day. Yet an enormous amount of money, troops, and equipment is being expended to complete a construction project that will inspire prayer for every day it isn’t fatally undermined.
I don’t get it. Am I alone in thinking we could be spending our time, money, resources, and (most importantly) manpower in a much better way?