Sunday, November 09, 2008

A NY Times reporter takes on the Kajaki dam

Carlotta Gall (more here and here) is definitely of the glass is half empty school:
KAJAKI DAM, Afghanistan — Five shipping containers marked with the Afghan flag, some of them still wrapped in plastic, now sit in the construction camp at Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan’s biggest hydroelectric project.

They hold the United States government’s largest single gift to Afghanistan of the past seven years: massive pieces of a new 200-ton hydroelectric turbine that, when installed, will double the electricity supply to the towns and districts of southern Afghanistan.

The $180 million project, which includes distribution lines and substations, is intended to reach 1.8 million people and provide jobs and economic renewal to the most troubled and violent part of the country.

The governor of Helmand Province, Gulab Mangal, paid a brief visit by helicopter to the dam in his province in October to emphasize its importance. Speaking to reporters over the roar of the water, he said that even if the immediate benefits were not apparent, future generations would appreciate the assistance coming into Afghanistan. “The children of Afghanistan will not forget the work done for this power station,” he said [photo below not at original position in story].

The Chinese-made turbine remains in its packing cases, and it will not be installed and working for perhaps a year. But its arrival in this isolated camp, deep inside Taliban territory, was one of the great feats of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan this year.

It has been a rare instance of a fulfilled promise in the effort to build up Afghanistan’s infrastructure. But even with the step forward, the improvements to the dam, in an inaccessible area of northern Helmand Province, are still being held hostage by the Taliban’s growing ability to mount offensives in recent years. The overall power project has been repeatedly delayed because of the difficulty of security and logistics. And the rest of the original $500 million proposal to augment the capacity of the dam itself has not been approved, cast in doubt by the Taliban’s gains.

“In the case of the Kajaki Dam or others, the security situation impedes the delivery of the service,” the American ambassador to Afghanistan, William B. Wood, told reporters in Washington in June. “The reason that there isn’t more light at night and more warmth in winter for south Afghanistan is because the Taliban has not let us do everything, work as effectively as we’d like to on the Kajaki Dam.”..

As the summer fighting dragged on, it became clear that 19,000 foreign troops deployed in the southern provinces, alongside thousands more Afghan soldiers and police officers, were in a stalemate with the insurgents, as one senior NATO commander put it. It looked as if Usaid’s project to develop the Kajaki Dam would be put on hold for yet another year.

Then in late August, NATO exercised some muscle. More than 4,000 British, American, Canadian, Danish, Australian and Afghan troops combined forces [emphasis added] to cut and secure a road through 100 miles of hostile territory to move the equipment and turbine parts that were too heavy to be airlifted up to Kajaki.

The cargo convoy, which included 100 vehicles and carried the turbine in seven containers weighing up to 30 tons each, took five days to struggle through the mountains, amid a strict news blackout. Heavy fighting took place in villages south of the dam, including aerial bombardment, but the convoy took a different route and arrived in early September without damage.

The huge operation was criticized in the British news media, which questioned the exposure of British soldiers to such high risk to save an American government assistance project [huh!?! see the UK papers' headlines at this post].

Yet for the Afghans employed here, and the frustrated residents of cities like Kandahar, who have lived with barely a few hours of electricity a day for the past seven years, NATO was belatedly meeting its commitment to bring development to southern Afghanistan...


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