Taliban hamper dam project in Afghanistan

British Maj. Mike Shervington watches over a stunning aqua-green lake and a 50-year-old story about U.S. struggles to aid Afghanistan.

Inside a security perimeter is an old American-built dam with the potential to provide Afghanistan with 6 percent of its power. Outside the line roam enough Taliban fighters to prevent Washington’s largest single aid project in Afghanistan from ever reaching that goal.

The Kajaki Dam, built in the 1950s to help Afghan farmers irrigate their fields, is in Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan, which grows more opium poppies than any place in the world. And, thanks to an influx of Taliban fighters the last two years, it is one of the most dangerous regions in the country.

Western officials say the Taliban opposes any project carried out by international aid workers — schools, clinics or, in this case, the dam — because locals might turn toward the government. Militants also are likely trying to protect their lucrative drug trade in the area around Kajaki.

A small building at the base of the dam houses one working Westinghouse turbine, one of two the U.S. installed in the 1970s. The second turbine is dismantled for repairs. In between those is a large hole where the U.S. hopes to install a third turbine.

Even a small boost in output would be meaningful in a nation where only 6 percent of the population has electricity.

But because of the swarms of Taliban fighters who control the region, the U.S. has been forced to push back the planned delivery date of needed parts — now set for mid-2009.

Shervington, who commands 200 British paratroopers at the dam, says he’s still not sure when the parts can be safely delivered.

“These guys are pretty determined, pretty professional,” Shervington said of the militants who surround the dam.

“Because it provides such a source of energy, the vast majority of people (Afghans) want this to succeed. It powers farm machinery, allows people to feed their family,” he said. “But there are people who don’t want that, who don’t want this to succeed, who don’t want people to feed their families.”

The dam — built by the same company that constructed the Hoover Dam, Morrison-Knudsen Corp. — was beset by problems from the beginning, irrigating only 30 percent as many acres as promised.

A report by the Institute for Afghan Studies found that Afghans in the 1950s judged the Kajaki Dam project as a failure and a symbol of neglect and indifference by the U.S. government.

Still, U.S. crews returned to Kajaki in the 1970s and installed two turbines. They’ve been overseen ever since by an Afghan engineer named Rasool, who kept them both running until 2003.

Rasool, who like many Afghans goes by one name, oversees 36 other Afghan employees. They are qualified to maintain the turbines, but often lack the needed parts or tools.

The province’s governor, Gulab Mangal, said the dam — even with only one working turbine — provides Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar with a few, vital hours of electricity a day.

“It’s helping agriculture and business,” Mangal said. “Soon we are planning to make the security plans to take the third turbine to Kajaki by road. We are planning to make the road secure for the long term.”

Rasool said workers sometimes travel to work through barrages of gunfire between British troops and Taliban fighters, but he said the Taliban don’t target his workers because “the opposition also needs electricity.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm, says the cost for refurbishing the two turbines and the purchase of the third is $51 million. But a lot of other work remains.

Officials want to raise the water level of the dam by 12 feet to better feed the turbines. That will involve relocating people who live close to the lake’s shoreline.

The region also needs new transmission lines that can carry the new, increased power to Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. That will cost more than $77 million.

At full capacity, the three turbines together can provide southern Afghanistan with 51 megawatts of power, said John Shepard, an engineer from Tucson, Arizona, who has been working on the Kajaki project since 2004.

In total, Afghanistan has the potential to create about 770 megawatts of power on small, individual power grids that service local communities. That means the Kajaki Dam could provide more than 6 percent of the country’s total electricity.

By Western standards, though, 50 megawatts is a modest amount — nearly enough electricity for a town the size of Burlington, Vermont, which has about 160,000 people.

“Afghanistan’s future stability depends in large part on growth of the private sector and jobs. The Kajaki Dam is a critical element in our support for Afghanistan, because it will provide the electricity to drive private sector growth in Helmand and Kandahar,” said Mark Ward, USAID acting assistant administrator for Asia.

Much of the fighting between NATO-led security forces and Taliban insurgents is centered on these two volatile provinces. Some 3,500 U.S. Marines moved into the region this spring to help bring security and train Afghan police.

Insecurity in the region has warded off investors and hindered development agencies, setting back efforts to win public support for the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.