Building a Dam in a Bid to End Afghan Instability
By CARLOTTA GALL | September 18, 2007
KAJAKI DAM, Afghanistan — The police posts on the hilltops around Kajaki Dam look out over empty villages and a deserted bazaar, where weeds grow and rubbish blows down the street. The population left a year and a half ago and only a few hundred people remain here, most of them soldiers and police officers guarding Afghanistan’s jewel of industry, its largest hydroelectric dam, against Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban are dug in a few miles beyond in otherwise deserted villages and have cut off all access roads, holding this tiny community in a stranglehold. British troops, here for the last eight months, have held them back, but only enough to create a security bubble some four miles in diameter around the dam.
This is where the United States government plans its largest project in Afghanistan, the repair and upgrade of the half-century-old dam, which American officials say will cost $150 million during its first year and up to $500 million in total. The project will include the construction of a 55-mile road to the dam through Taliban-held country, the installation of an additional turbine and the building of new transmission lines and substations to bring electricity to 1.7 million people in southern Afghanistan. American officials say more than 4,000 jobs will be created at the height of construction.
An ambitious project, considering that Kajaki lies in northern Helmand province — the most problematic of all Afghanistan’s provinces, with uncontrolled poppy cultivation and at least half the land under the control of Taliban insurgents, drug lords and smugglers. Heavy fighting between insurgents and American and NATO forces occurs daily.
Yet for those very reasons, the United States Agency for International Development, the government agency coordinating American aid projects in Afghanistan, is focusing on Helmand like no other province. Alongside plans for the Kajaki Dam, it is supporting agricultural, educational and health programs in an attempt to wean farmers off poppy cultivation and workers away from fighting.
“We are developing a strategy as if Helmand were a country,” said a Usaid official, who did not wish to be identified, citing agency policy. “If Helmand was a country, it would be the fifth largest Usaid country project in the world,” he said.
Yet the violence in Helmand, which escalated last year as the Taliban swarmed in while British troops were deploying to the province, has already delayed work on the Kajaki Dam for a year. Even if the situation improves enough to start work on the road in the coming months, the installation of a new turbine, which is too heavy to be airlifted and has to be trucked in, and new transmission lines will not be completed until the end of 2008.
In the tiny community of British soldiers and local police officers and security guards living at Kajaki, that is unbearably far off. They live in limbo, cut off from normal life, unable to travel far beyond the camp or the deserted bazaar for fear of the Taliban. The policemen have not had relief or seen their families in more than a year and a half and went unpaid until recently.
Some foreign assistance did come to Kajaki after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Afghan engineers at the dam said. Germans repaired one of the two American Westinghouse turbines installed at the dam in 1975, bringing it back up to its full 18-megawatt capacity. A Chinese company was to begin work on a new turbine. Indians repaired a crane in the power station at the base of the 300-foot-high dam, and Americans built housing for foreign workers and hired guards.
But when the Taliban moved into the area last year and rained rockets down on the camp, the foreigners pulled out, and many Afghan civilians left as well. The foreigners’ promises of development, including a clinic, a school and roads, evaporated.
“People are thinking they are not serious,” said Muhammad Zaman, 43, the engineer on duty at the power station one afternoon. “It is six years they are promising,” he said.
Yet the power station workers — 43 workers on 24-hour shifts — keep coming to work from nearby villages and have managed to persuade the Taliban to let them cross the front line.
“We always talk to the Taliban and tell them this is an important project — it will bring more electricity and save on oil, power, and will save water,” Mr. Zaman said. “To some extent they agree, but there are some who come from Pakistan, and they are saying that the project should not go forward.”
The Taliban leadership is widely believed to be operating out of the city of Quetta in Pakistan and has sought to disrupt assistance programs and prevent people from cooperating with the government and foreign forces.
The civilians of the Kajaki area are suffering the most from the standoff, driven from their homes and unable to farm their fields, the workers said.
“I am worried about the villagers,” said Haji Abdul Razziq, the district chief. “They are poor and now they are scattered in the desert, living under trees and bushes, beneath the mountains. They are in a very bad situation, between life and death. Seven children have died from the severe heat.”
Mr. Abdul Razziq said that an old man had come to see him and told him he was going around begging at night because he was so ashamed to be seen.
The winter would be worse for the 600 families who have been displaced from their homes south of the camp, he warned. Hundreds more have left villages to the north.
“The only way to help them is to clear the Taliban away completely from the area, then you can help the people,” Mr. Abdul Razziq said. “At the moment the enemy has become so weak, they just need a slight push.”
Yet when British troops conducted a patrol to the village of Mazdurak, just a few miles to the north, they came under fire from three directions and had to call in a deafening barrage of artillery and air support to knock the Taliban out.
There will be little relief for the displaced families in the coming months, let alone progress on the dam, British soldiers warned. So far, their orders are only to preserve the four-mile buffer zone while the bulk of British forces in Helmand concentrate on areas farther south.
“It’s a huge undertaking to build and secure a route to get equipment in,” said Maj. Tony Borgnis, a company commander with the Royal Anglian Regiment, which has been fighting the Taliban farther south for the last five months. “I cannot see it happening in my tenure,” he said.