Kajaki, saga of ruin

The story of how an Afghan dam was planned, prepared, fought over and now abandoned symbolises the epic failure of the "war on terror".

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 March 2013

In the months after the Taliban regime was terminated in late 2001, many analysts argued that a stabilisation force was needed to fill the security vacuum and aid Afghanistan in the huge task of reconstruction. In the event, the George W Bush administration - consumed with the need to extinguish Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq - expected Europe to pick up the tab in Afghanistan. Europe was not willing, however, and instead of a recommended 30,000-strong stabilisation force, barely 5,000 troops were provided for the first couple of years: enough to secure Kabul, Kandahar and a few larger towns, but leaving most of the country to its own devices.

It was predictable, then (and predicted) that the Taliban and other armed opposition groups would re-emerge, to the extent that by 2004 they were gaining control of many towns and villages across southern and eastern Afghanistan. The problems in the large provinces of Kandahar and Helmand were so acute that in spring 2006 the British began to deploy substantial forces in Helmand. Even then, some politicians and military planners seriously underestimated the security problems, with talk even of “not a shot being fired”. By 2008, several hundred thousand “shots” later, the British forces were involved in a bitter counterinsurgency operation which made any claims that peace was being promoted and development fostered look absurd.

Perhaps to counter this impression and to offer a highly visible sign of progress, the UK ministry of defence (MoD) announced in summer 2008 that a major operation was planned to transport a turbine through the province to the hydroelectric plant at the Kajaki dam in northern Helmand. The dam had been built by United States engineers in the much calmer 1950s but its output in 2008 was a mere 16.5MW.  The addition of a turbine manufactured in China, to be put in place by Chinese technicians, would add another 18.5MW and proudly demonstrate what Nato could do for the country.

The MoD declared at the time:

“The additional electricity it will eventually provide will light up classrooms, allowing Afghans across southern Afghanistan to learn to read and write in evening classes;  farmers to store their produce in chilled storage, allowing greater export opportunities for the booming wheat markets; and clinics to provide improved health services” (see “Afghanistan: propaganda of the deed”, 11 February 2010).

The operation to move the turbine from Kandahar air-base to Kajaki - a 280-kilometre journey over six days through insecure territory - went ahead in August-September 2008, amid great attention from the western media. It was a huge logistical event involving a four-kilometre-long column of 100 vehicles protected by 5,000 troops (mostly British), fifty armoured vehicles, and continuous air-cover. The convoy got to Kajaki safely, and a USAID subcontractor was able to say: "(There's) still a lot to do, but I've been waiting for this for a long time. It's a great day for Afghanistan and it feels like my birthday”.

What happened next? Nothing.

It became clear that the area around the Kajaki dam was far too dangerous for the Chinese contractors to come and instal the turbine - and too difficult even to bring in the several hundred tonnes of cement needed for the task. For the next year, the turbine remained - still unpacked - at the dam site; one report even suggested that the whole project was being postponed (see "Afghan Kajaki dam project delayed by security concerns", BBC News, 14 December 2009)

There was a moment of hope some months later, as President Obama's 30,000-strong troop "surge" in 2010 was to include a major effort to defeat the Taliban in Helmand (which British forces had been embarrassingly unable to do). The US marines arrived in the area to reinforce their allies, raising expectations that the hydro plant could finally be completed. In the event, fifty US soldiers were killed in the operation to secure the route to the dam and the area round it, a "success" that proved short-lived - for within two years, Obama's administration announced that combat-troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. All the surge troops had gone home by December 2012. 

Now, three years after the surge started, USAID is reducing its aid to the country and one casualty will be the completion of the Kijaki project (which has cost $266 million) even before US troops depart (Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “Dam and other Afghan projects scaled back…”, Washington Post, 4 March 2013). Instead, the task will be handed over to the Afghan electricity utility, DABS, which USAID officials insist will be competent to complete it (see “The Right approach to Afghanistan's Kajaki Dam”, letter to Washington Post, 9 March 2013)

There are serious doubts as to whether DABS can do this, either now or in the future - a point that raises lonstanding questions over USAID's role and judgment in Afghanistan (see, for example, Ben Arnoldy, “Afghanistan war: USAID spends too much, too fast to win hearts and minds”, Christian Science Monitor, 28 July 2010).

American troops are now heavily involved in withdrawing an estimated $22 billion worth of equipment. This is a task made much more difficult by Pakistan's reluctance to allow US forces evacuate most of their materiel through Karachi, a stance driven not least by public anger over the drone strikes. As a result, a large part of the entire US deployment is engaged in the withdrawal process and far fewer patrols are being carried out (see Paul McLeary, “U.S. Budget Cuts Likely To Wreak Havoc on Afghanistan Pullout”, Defense News, 4 March 2013).

Thus, the original operation to secure the area in order to upgrade the dam in 2008 failed; a further attempt in 2010 also failed; now the completion is being handed over to the Afghans with woefully inadequate security support. A project that could have had a hugely beneficial effect across two provinces might eventually go ahead, after several more years and primarily by Afghans; but that will be long after the Americans are reduced to a rump in Afghanistan, using armed-drones and special forces aimed solely at any group that might threaten US security (see "Drone wars: the Afghan model", 14 February 2013)..

The Kajaki experience describes the incapacity of Nato in Afghanistan in a direct, physical way. It is in a real sense tragic: an epic story that also expresses in miniature the comprehensive failure of the "war on terror".

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