That Damn Afghan Dam

by Joshua Foust on 11/10/2008 · 4 comments

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?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Positroll November 10, 2008 at 10:02 am

“Other places in Helmand—Lashkar Gah, for example—have far bigger needs than a few more hours of electricity per day.”
Maybe. But if we ever want to see Afghanistan as a marginally functioning state, they’ll need enough electricity in the major cities so that businesses, factories, universities etc can work without importing tons of oil through Pakistan. In my view, that’s worth the effort, especially in order to show Pashtouns (sp?) that we don’t only care about development for the people in Kabul and the north.
Besides, giving up on the dam now would make the West look weak and unrelyable. We just can’t afford that.

shohmurod November 10, 2008 at 1:06 pm

The dam is a fine idea a year from now after the Obama Administration sits with Taliban to make political reconciliation.

But right now, in fighting an enemy they hardly recognize, US/ISAF/NATO’s effort has become ad hoc at best due to the Bush Administration’s reluctance to make peace with the Taliban and end up with two losses in the legacy column.

Taliban are monsters, but we caused their creation. It is time to stop fighting them and start reigning them in for a long transformation into global neighbors.

I envision, five years from now, former Taliban men guarding the dam and working on running electricity lines to their villages.

“Thanks to President Hussein” as they might say!

R Scott November 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Large projects like this allow the bureaucrats to state how much money they have spent of development work rather than focus on less costly projects that are difficult to put in the field like support for the long established cash crops that are still being cultivated…along with opium poppy…that the farmers would prefer; like cotton for which the British built a cotton gin in the 1960s that is still in operation but mostly unsupported.

At the time of the Soviets, the mujahadin left the Kajaki dam alone but took out the power lines, leaving Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the dark. The Taliban put the power lines back in the lat 90s with the help of Turkmanistan and Pakistan. If the present “Taliban” want the new power source to remain isolated, when they finally get the turbines repaired and installed maybe next year, they will only have to take out the power lines, most of which have to be reinstalled. To guard the power lines across Helmand and Kandahar provinces would be the task to try to accomplish…not likely.

Alex November 18, 2008 at 6:51 pm

Just isn’t true that the British press was silent/silenced about it. It was positively triumphalist.

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