U.S. hands troubled dam to Afghans

After struggling for more than a decade to upgrade a huge hydroelectric plant in a volatile region that saw heavy American losses in fighting with the Taliban, the United States is trying a new approach: Let the Afghans take charge.

U.S. officials are handing responsibility -- and up to $80 million -- to President Hamid Karzai’s government to finish refurbishing the Kajaki Dam and power system in the southern province of Helmand as President Obama brings home U.S. troops and cuts back Washington’s nation-building experiment in Afghanistan.

No project symbolizes America’s vast ambitions -- or deep frustrations -- in Afghanistan more than the effort to boost production from Kajaki Dam to provide electricity to the Taliban heartland, a goal military commanders long deemed essential to blunting the insurgency.


But ceding control of the mammoth development project carries clear risks. Chief among them: The Afghan government may further delay or abandon construction, turning one of the largest investments in the nearly $100-billion U.S. relief and reconstruction effort into an enduring example of failure.

The Kajaki project reflects the challenge the Obama administration faces as American military involvement diminishes: closing out the U.S. combat role while entrusting Afghan institutions with protecting hard-won security and development gains.

U.S. officials in Kabul, the capital, say the state-run utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, known as DABS, will finish work at Kajaki by the end of 2017 -- 12 years after the dam upgrade began and three years after U.S. combat troops are scheduled to depart Afghanistan.

“It’s great news for us that the [Afghan] government has shown this kind of interest and ownership,” said Ken Yamashita, Kabul mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development, known as USAID, which has managed the project. “It’s very rewarding to us to see ... that DABS is now capable of doing this.”

But others question the 4-year-old utility’s competence and experience, as well as the government’s commitment to a project that insurgents have violently opposed. To finish the construction, Afghan troops must secure a crucial supply road leading to the dam that has come under frequent attack.

President Obama’s decision to increase the U.S. troop level in 2010 focused on retaking ground in southern Afghanistan. Some of the fiercest fighting occurred in Helmand province, where at least 29 Marines were killed clearing the road to Kajaki. Many others were grievously wounded.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, then-commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, argued at the time that improving the Kajaki Dam would create jobs and promote agriculture, thus weakening support for the insurgency.

“It’s safe to say the Marines have a jaundiced view of [the handoff] given the sacrifices they made to clear the area,” a former U.S. official in Kabul said.

Until this year, Black & Veatch, an engineering company based in Overland Park, Kan., had a $266-million contract that included installing an 18-megawatt turbine at Kajaki that would increase the dam’s peak electrical generation by more than half.

But during a visit to Washington in January, Karzai demanded that more development work be funneled through his government. He specifically cited the dam.

Although many at USAID opposed the move, the agency rewrote the contract to put DABS in charge of the turbine. The Afghan utility is expected to select a construction company this year to finish the work at a cost of $60 million to $80 million, according to preliminary estimates.

“As with any large infrastructure project, this one is with risk,” Yamashita said. “We’re all committed to making it succeed.”

Nestled in dun-colored hills, the hydroelectric complex -- an aging power station, a 300-foot-high earthen dam and an emerald-green reservoir -- was built in 1953 by the American engineering giant Morrison-Knudsen.

By hiring the firm that had built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, Afghanistan’s king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, sought to modernize his nation. The U.S. government saw a way to expand its influence on the doorstep of the Soviet Union during the depths of the Cold War.

In the mid-1970s, USAID installed two turbines in the dam’s power station, but the complex decayed over the next quarter-century of Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule.

By 2001, the station was barely producing power. Washington bureaucrats flush with post-Sept. 11 dollars seized on the idea of a third turbine, which would boost the dam’s 33-megawatt peak output. It would provide electricity to Helmand and neighboring Kandahar province, traditional Taliban strongholds.

In 2005, USAID contracted a Chinese government company to install the third turbine. But by the time the Chinese were ready to transport it to the dam, British forces had taken over Helmand from U.S. troops and were battling a rejuvenated insurgency.

It took a six-day military operation involving 4,000 British troops, backed by U.S. airstrikes, to deliver the massive apparatus to the dam in the summer of 2008.

But the Chinese engineers left Kajaki that fall, claiming a Taliban kidnapping threat. Since then, the turbine parts have sat in dozens of huge metal containers, unopened, in dirt at the dam compound.

U.S. combat units have departed the area, leaving Afghan soldiers and police in charge. But militants still rule nearby villages and siphon electricity, without payment, from the overburdened transmission lines.

Over the winter, Taliban fighters captured several dam workers and accused them of deliberately depressing the power output.

“We said, ‘Just please allow us to install [the turbine], then you will have more power. Otherwise there is no chance,’ ” said the dam’s longtime chief engineer, Sayed Rasoul, a genial man with a bushy beard. “Finally they accepted.”

Rasoul said the Taliban would permit the Afghan-led installation to proceed because they also want more reliable electricity. But the regional governor, Mullah Abdul Razzaq Akhund, said the insurgents’ patrons in Iran and Pakistan view the dam as an example of unwanted foreign influence.

“The Taliban want to stop this project if they can,” he said.

It’s far from clear that the Afghan utility has the experience to administer the project. A recent audit by the Pentagon’s special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found that $23 million in U.S. gear had gone unused by DABS in Helmand and Kandahar because the utility “lacked the capacity to install and manage the equipment.”

Mirwais Alami, DABS’ chief commercial officer, said the utility would work closely with USAID and others on what is its biggest project by far. “This was a very good decision by the Americans,” he said at his office in Kabul.

Though insurgents and some villagers are skeptical of the U.S. role in Kajaki, DABS officials are spreading the word to local elders that the hydroelectric project is now Afghan-run.

“The people are very interested in supporting this project,” Alami said. “We had thousands of foreign security forces and no progress. This has gone on for five, six, eight years. It should really have only taken one year.”


Joseph Tanfani in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.