The Complex

What Withdrawal? U.S. Pumps More Cash Into Afghanistan's $500 Million Dam

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

The Complex

U.S. Will Keep Cutting its Bases in Europe, Top General Says

The U.S. military will continue to close buildings and bases in Europe, the top American commander there told Foreign Policy. But U.S. troops should remain on the continent in about the same numbers they are today.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, who is both commander of U.S. European Command and Supreme Allied Commander, said budget reductions will force European Command to continue cutting back its footprint, closing smaller bases and shuttering facilities. But cutting personnel is another matter. 

If the command is to continue working with America's European allies -- and responding to potential missions in places like North Africa  -- the military must maintain the boots on the ground to do it, he said. Maintaining personnel means being able to build and maintain relationships that are as critical now as they ever have been.  Breedlove noted that more than 250,000 Europeans have deployed to Afghanistan since the war began. Of those, some 42,000 had been trained by U.S. Army advisers in Germany.

"As I look at the size and type of our Army in Europe, the size and type of our Air Force in Europe, what I'm most keen on is to remain engaged with our military partners so we can train with them across the full gamut because this gives us partners who will go to war with us when we need them," he said. 

Breedlove's comments come as the Pentagon has signaled that it may trim the U.S. Army to 420,000 troops by 2019 -- if not faster. That could have an effect on a command like European Command, potentially robbing of it of the kind of training and advising forces on which it has come to rely.

But Breedlove said the debate about the size of the forces each command needs is not about numbers but about the capabilities those forces provide to conduct exercises, collaborate and train from artillery to special forces to infantry and heavy lift logistics training. 

"What I need is that capability to train and engage across the force," he said.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has trimmed 75 percent of its personnel in Europe, Breedlove said. The amount of infrastructure ahs been reduced by 80 percent.

Breedlove is far more open to more cuts to bases and facilities, however. This spring, a study called the European Infrastructure Consolidation Review will look at the size of the infrastructure the U.S. military needs for Europe. Breedlove wouldn't preview its potential conclusions, but conceded the U.S. could close more facilities and gain efficiencies. 

"I'm on the record as saying ‘yes, there is more,'" he said. "There is infrastructure I believe we can still divest."

Breedlove assumed command in May 2013. He was nominated to replace Gen. John Allen, who had been nominated for the military's top job in Europe but declined to pursue confirmation after being cleared in connection with the investigation of e-mails between him and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley. Breedlove, who has had 11 overseas assignments, had been the head of the U.S. Air Force in Europe since July 2012 before being tapped for his current position. 

Since he took the job, one of Breedlove's top concerns has been the NATO campaign in Afghanistan. It's a mission that is making America's European allies increasingly nervous, he said. The lack of a decision by the Obama administration and the Karzai government over what the size and role of the post-2014 mission isn't exactly helping.

"Clearly there is concern about where the U.S. is going and what the numbers look like," Breedlove said. "Clearly the nations would love to have those decisions now." 

But, he said, there is "relative calm" at the moment. Germany, which operates in Afghanistan's northern region, and Italy, which oversees operations in the West, have coordinated with other countries to give them a sense of what to expect. "The conversations settle expectations," he said.

Currently, there are 37,500 American troops deployed to Afghanistan. Coalition nations are contributing more than 24,000 additional troops. Although it ebbs and flows, the typical U.S.-to-allied troop ratio is about two to one. Breedlove said when the decisions are made, the U.S.-to-coalition ration would likely stay the same. "We'll see a very similar sizing ration that we see now," Breedlove said.

The Afghan National Security Force is now about 345,000. 

The U.S. military is also anxious for a decision about what, if anything, it will do in Afghanistan after 2014. Although the Obama administration had wanted resolution on the matter by year's end, it could now come anytime in the next few weeks - or early spring. Breedlove said the "lion's share of the planning" is in draft form and "the plans are there," documents that reflect "what we might get and what we hope to get."

Breedlove said NATO is at the "peak of its cohesiveness" when it comes to coordinating with other nations over tactics, techniques and procedures and is confident that even though it is a Cold War construct, it is "the alliance we're going to fight with in the future."

Arne Dedert/AFP/Getty Images