USAID’s $500 million dam project circling the drain in Afghanistan

Engineers work in the control room at the Kajaki Hydroelectric Power Plant in Helmand Province.
Ben Brody

A linchpin of the American counterinsurgency strategy in southern Afghanistan is maintaining electrical service in Kandahar City, and even that modest goal appears to be slipping away with the ongoing troop withdrawal. That is because the long-overdue upgrade of Kajaki Dam, slated to provide power to Kandahar, now appears unlikely to ever be finished.

Lack of electricity in southern Afghanistan’s most populous city will rapidly delegitimize the Afghan government and help unravel more than a decade of US efforts there, says John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“It appears that the US still has no realistic plan for helping the Afghan government develop a sustainable source of electricity,” Sopko wrote in a new report that takes a dim view of USAID’s plans to maintain electrical service in Kandahar after the US military withdraws this year.

“[If] electrical service to the Kandahar area is compromised, the US government may lose some of the hard-earned counterinsurgency and economic development gains made over the last few years,” the report continues.

Scores of US troops died in a multi-year effort to make a lasting solution to Kandahar’s energy problem, but their sacrifices came to naught when the Afghan government took control of the project and sent it off the rails. USAID, the agency funding Afghanistan’s electrical infrastructure, had a chance to avoid this grim situation, but failed when they canceled a 2011 operation to install a new hydroelectric turbine at the Kajaki Dam.

Kandahar is presently powered by diesel generators, which require costly fuel and frequent maintenance, both subsidized by the US. This funding is drying up quickly, and will be eliminated entirely by September 2015. The plan to keep the lights on in Kandahar hinges on hydropower from the Kajaki Dam, which has been a bottomless pit of waste and failure for the agency tasked with its development, USAID.

Americans built the Kajaki Dam in the 1950s, and its hydroelectric plant in the 1970s. Two turbines produce a limited amount of electricity, not enough to sustain Kandahar’s demands. A third, more modern turbine could provide enough power for the city and surrounding areas, but fierce fighting has prevented the delivery of 700 tons of concrete necessary for its installation.

Three years ago, when Jean MacKenzie and I reported on the Kajaki Dam for the GlobalPost Special Report “Watershed of Waste,” we had a minor disagreement. She thought the Taliban would never allow the convoy of concrete trucks to pass, and I thought the Taliban didn’t have a vote: if the Marines made a concerted effort to blast their way from Kandahar to Kajaki, the concrete would arrive.

That fall, the Marines appeared to be proving me right. They had cleared and held vast swaths of the violent farmland surrounding the road, and were ready to secure the convoy of building materials. The clearing operations cost the lives of more than 50 soldiers and Marines, but the road was more or less secured by winter.

Suddenly it turned out our disagreement was moot, as the stupefying decision came from USAID that there would be no attempt to deliver the concrete after all. In an incredible display of the lack of coordination between the US military and USAID, the project was handed over to the Afghan national electricity company DABS. Funding still comes from USAID, but oversight falls to the Afghans.

DABS has in turn hired Dubai-based GFA Consulting to manage the dam, including installation of the third turbine, projected for completion by December 2015. The GFA contract is worth $75 million, on top of the approximately $500 million Kajaki has cost since 2002.

In a best-case scenario based on the US military’s own projections, power from the new Kajaki turbine would not be delivered to Kandahar until 2018, leaving the city of 500,000 in the dark for three years after the fuel subsidies run out.

Even that grim scenario is a pipe dream at this point. The security situation at Kajaki has gone from bad to worse. US military sources say fighting between Taliban and Afghan troops occurs on a near-daily basis.

With US forces drawing down, the Taliban is resurgent in poppy-growing regions of Helmand Province and the road to Kajaki is no longer secure enough to bring the concrete from Kandahar. Given the level of effort and sacrifice it took the well-provisioned US Marines to open that road, it seems unlikely the beleaguered Afghan forces will be able to do the same, if they attempt to install Kajaki’s third turbine.

The concrete hole between Kajaki’s two existing turbines remains empty, and like the US war and rebuilding process itself, implacably consumes the nearly endless amounts of blood and treasure that have been poured into it. There is no sign the hole will ever be filled by anything else.