In October 2011, U.S. Marines in Afghanistan launched a massive operation, pushing northeast along treacherous Route 611 in Helmand province to tangle with insurgents in Kajaki, then one of the last districts in Helmand without a large presence of U.S. forces. The major goal at the time: root out the Taliban in a series of firefights and connect the landmark hydroelectric facility in the region, the Kajaki Dam, with the rest of province. Doing so would allow at long last for the belated installation of a third turbine planned to jump-start electricity for tens of thousands of people in the region.
More than two years later, what's left of the U.S. military and civilian presence in Afghanistan is trying, finally, to complete the project, which began in 2002 and has cost an estimated $500 million. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will provide oversight as Afghanistan's power utility launches a contract competition to decide which company will install the third turbine. The two-phase project will likely cost about $75 million, according to a recent letter from John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR). And it won't be completed until 2015, well after the last U.S. combat forces leave the country.
USAID also has reached a new two-year, $3 million with Black and Veatch, the Kansas-based engineering company that has worked on the dam for years. The company will continue to provide technical support to Afghanistan and whoever it selects to install the third turbine.
But the work to install the final turbine, said to be collecting dust at the dam since it was delivered in late 2008, will come at a tenuous time. The U.S. military no longer has control of the region or the road it cleared in 2011 to make way for the supplies needed to complete the project. Marines left their last base in Kajaki in December, turning over control of the security to Afghan forces, 1st Lt. Garth Langley, a Marine Corps spokesman, told Foreign Policy. The U.S.-led military coalition has ceded control of security across most of the country to Afghan forces despite serious questions about their long-term viability.
Installation of the turbine also will come as top U.S. officials remain at odds with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who continues to refuse to sign an agreement hammered out between the two nations that is supposed to set the conditions for long-term American involvement in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have said it must be signed within weeks in order for the United States to stay beyond 2014, but Karzai is unlikely to do so, according to a recent cable by U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham and obtained by the Washington Post.
Nevertheless, USAID maintains that the dam can blossom. The organization also says that although U.S. military commanders protested a decision last year to put Afghanistan's power utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) in charge of the project, it has enough oversight to make sure work is completed. Putting the Afghans in charge, USAID maintains, is part of the U.S. transition out of the country. USAID already has rehabilitated the first two decrepit turbines at the dam despite significant security challenges, boosting power to the point that 185,000 Afghans receive it, the organization said.
"Throughout this process, USAID and DABS have worked closely together, and USAID has approved the process by which the contract was selected to ensure transparency," a USAID spokesman said in a statement to Foreign Policy. "We will continue to provide quality assurance and quality control throughout the process of installing the third turbine, including reviewing vouchers of the contractor."
If the work is not completed, it would perpetuate more than a decade of heartbreak and frustration in the region. Dozens of U.S. Marines have been killed fighting insurgents in the region, and a tour of the nearby village by this writer in spring 2012 showed that it was devastated from years of fighting, with power lines hanging at grotesque angles and walls on many compounds crumbling. Civilians lived there anyway, primarily along a straight stretch of paved road said to be a runway the Soviet military built after invading the country in 1979.
Construction of the dam was first completed by the United States in the 1950s as part of an ambitious project to introduce irrigation and electricity across the region. After years of fierce fighting between the Soviet army and the mujahedeen, the Soviets pulled out of the country, leaving behind tanks, anti-aircraft guns, and other military equipment that dotted picturesque cliffs and hills that would have been inviting, were it not for the land mines hidden there.
The work isn't the only electric project the United States has planned in coming years in Afghanistan, either. It continues to move on the Power Transmission Expansion and Connectivity project, an expansive effort that would join a network of power stations built in several parts of the country.
The United States has set aside more than $260 million for the effort, according to SIGAR. It is considered Afghanistan's major power initiative, and it will link smaller networks in the northern and southern portions of the country, according to the Pentagon's November report to Congress on Afghanistan. Several related efforts are ongoing, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently advertising that it wants to erect up to $100 million in power lines across the northern network in Kabul and Logar provinces.
Still, it is the dam in Kajaki that has captured attention for its beauty, gross mismanagement, and surrounding violence.
It's a metaphor, in many ways, for the country as a whole.
State Department photo