Kajaki and Power Politics

Dec 13, 2011

Like the ancient Greco-Buddhist colossi of Bamiyan, the High-Modernist era Kajaki dam is a product of foreign influences and has been a mute witness as well as an occasional victim of domestic political disarray and failed attempts to integrate and incorporate Afghanistan into contending spheres of influence. Each alternate modern (i.e., capitalist, communist, islamist, praetorian) or anti-traditional/utopian fundamentalist (i.e., Deobandi) ideology has attempted to inscribe the future of Afghanistan on this palimpsest.

The dam was built from 1946 to 1953 as part of what became known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) project in Afghanistan.  It was funded initially by King Zahir Shah and later, as funds ran low, from loans by the United States (Washington Post 8/7/2011). The vast project was obviously modeled on the  Great Depression era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. The belief in the High Modernist era of development planning was that massive infrastructural investment was the key to setting off a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic growth. Although that model of development is highly discredited today for environmental and political as well as practical reasons, the dam, irrigation canals, and highways associated with the project did eventually help to transform the landscape into a fertile valley. By the mid-seventies, the dam had two Westinghouse 16.5 MW turbines to generate electricity for the entire valley. This project was for its time, one of the most expensive US foreign assistance projects in history.

With the Saur Revolution, insurrection, Soviet invasion, and civil war the dam naturally fell into a brief period of disrepair. The occupying Soviet forces prioritized linking Kabul directly to the Soviet power grid. However, they also built gas turbines and diesel generators in several other Afghan cities and towns. Czechoslovakia was given the task of restoring the dam and they provided much of the equipment to “modernize” the Kajaki dam and increase its irrigation capacity. By 1982, the dam’s power lines were restored and power flowed once again to Alexander’s city, Kandahar, in the neighboring province. Not surprisingly, the dam soon attracted several Mujahedeen attacks on Soviet and PDPA soldiers guarding the site. With the Soviet withdrawal and the warlord period, the dam and associated infrastructure again fell into disrepair.

By the late nineties as order returned across much of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hopes that their increasingly warm friendship with the US (which seemed all too willing to overlook Taliban abuses toward women and minorities at the time) would mean that Americans would return to Helmand to once again fix the dam’s power generating units and particularly the silted irrigation canals (Philadelphia Inquirer 1/19/1997). The irrigation canals associated with the HVA were now vital to the production of the world’s largest supply of opium and Afghanistan’s main export, even though the Taliban had officially announced plans to stamp out the crop.

When US assistance for the dam did not materialize a few years later, the Taliban turned to Pakistan and China for assistance.  The Pakistanis, who increasingly saw Afghanistan as a colony or at least a “gateway to Central Asia” after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse, were committed to restoring electricity and promoting a modicum of stability and development in order to consolidate the gains of their Taliban client regime. Under the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan planned to build a high voltage transmission line to connect the Afghan city of Jalalabad directly to Pakistan’s own electricity grid. In Helmand, the Pakistanis proposed to build new sluice gates to increase the power generation and irrigation capacity of the dam.  These plans obviously came to a screeching halt in September 2001.

During the initial US invasion of Afghanistan, the dam’s power station was deliberately targeted by American forces (Guardian 12/20/2001).  Once the US occupied Afghanistan, the teams switched sides and the dam became the target of the Taliban while the US played defense.  In 2003, a force of sixty Taliban were captured after firing three rockets at the dam — all of which missed the target (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/2003).

In 2006, the US gave $1.4 billion to two private contractors to increase the amount of power generated by the Kajaki dam by adding a third turbine and also repairing a large power plant in Kabul.  Adding the third turbine to the dam entailed a famous 2008 mission, Operation Kryptonite, in which 3,000 British troops protected 100 vehicle convoy as it hauled a gigantic turbine across a 180 km of insurgent dominated areas. Apparently between 15 to 200 insurgents were killed (depending on which account one believes) during this Hollywood style “Wild West” stagecoach mission.

The mission “succeeded” in reaching the forward operating base but repairs and installation of the new turbine was painstakingly slow – the third turbine has never been unpacked. Repairs to the dam were supposed to be finished by 2008. By mid 2009 auditors were complaining that the two plants (Kajaki and Kabul) combined were only generating 12MW instead of the originally contracted 140MW (USA Today 11/11/2009). Plans for adding the third turbine were deferred indefinitely after a Chinese subcontractor abandoned the site. US taxpayers have since paid a $1 million per month to guard the dam while the program was suspended to look for another subcontractor and to make the road to the dam “secure.”

In the interim, US and ISAF forces performed annual surges to tame the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.  An inattentive and uncritical American and European public was repeatedly told by blatant propaganda that this time the province had finally been secured, only to witness a repeated need for a surge of troops and bribes the next year. Despite these surges, ISAF soldiers soldiers openly admit that their influence does not extend beyond 500 meters of their security bases (see Daily Mail 10/8/2011).

The electricity grid once again became a priority issue for American generals during a surge in the neighboring province of Kandahar in 2010, when the generals realized that restoring electric power was critical to winning over the civilian population and defeating the Taliban. They took $106 million dollars in discretionary funding to pay for new generators and all the diesel fuel necessary to power the grid for four years (Globe and Mail, 7/11/11). No provisions were made for the Afghan government to restock the fuel after four years and the government lacked the staff to monitor or repair the system.

Finally, having failed to stabilize the province, much less fix the electricity supply, ISAF forces have simply declared victory and they have begun to hand over responsibility to ill trained Afghan Security Forces in preparation for a withdrawal in 2014.

In November 2011, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had dropped by 20 meters over several months endangering the ability of the dam to generate any electricity if another 5 meters were lost (Shamsad TV, 11/23/2011).  The electricity generation which had reached 20MW was now back down to 12MW. The drop in water also threatened the agricultural capacity of the valley which was already threatened by drought.

This week (12/13/2011) with a 50% cut to the USAID budget, the US is considering permanently deferring the installation of the third turbine and instead calling it a day after simply refurbishing the existing two turbines, power lines, and substations.  What was once seen as essential to winning hearts and minds is now on the chopping block of a cost-benefit analysis.

Thus, the dam remains a symbol of false promises and failed efforts to reorient decisively Afghanistan’s future. But even if the dam were made operational, it would still remain problematic. Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development. The broader failings of an unsustainable infrastructure-led development model were never unpacked and thought through. The dam represents a desperate hope that there is a short cut to development, prosperity, and peace.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia