When U.S. Marines surged into southern Afghanistan in 2010, one of their top priorities was to secure a towering dam on the Helmand River so the U.S. Agency for International Development could begin a construction project to provide much-needed electricity to Kandahar, the country's second-largest city.
Simply reaching the outskirts of the Kajaki Dam was perilous. More than 50 U.S. troops were killed in combat operations to evict the Taliban from areas along a 30-mile road leading to the structure.
Now that Marines and Afghan soldiers have seized the dam and the surrounding areas, USAID has decided not to complete the most critical part of the $266 million project itself. Instead, the agency intends to hand over the challenging task of installing a large hydropower turbine to the Afghan government.
The dam is one of many reconstruction projects once deemed essential but now being rapidly scaled back and redesigned in the waning days of the long Afghanistan war as troop pullouts, declining budgets and public fatigue force a realignment of priorities. But USAID's decision to walk away from the turbine installation, one of the most important and symbolic development efforts associated with President Barack Obama's troop surge, is drawing unique scrutiny.
Several civilian experts who have served in southern Afghanistan contend that the Afghan government lacks the ability to manage the complex project, placing in jeopardy a vital initiative to increase electricity production, which they say is crucial to the region's long-term stability.
The Kajaki Dam was constructed by U.S. engineers in the 1950s, and it has long been regarded by Afghans as a manifestation of U.S. ingenuity and assistance. Should the Afghan-led installation fail, the civilian experts fear that the structure will come to represent U.S. abandonment and weakness.
Military officers who lost comrades in the area see it in more personal terms. "A lot of blood and treasure were wasted just to spike the ball at the 10-yard line," a senior Marine officer involved in the effort to secure the dam said on condition of anonymity.
USAID officials insist that the U.S. government is not abandoning the turbine project. The agency, they noted, will still pay for the installation costs, estimated at about $70 million. But instead of having a U.S. contractor perform to work, USAID intends to give the money directly to the Afghan state-run electricity utility, which will be responsible for hiring experts and managing construction.
Larry Sampler, a senior USAID official responsible for Afghanistan programs, said the agency believes that the Afghan electricity company, known by the acronym DABS, has developed the skills to take charge of the project. "We're confident that DABS will be able to meet a timeline comparable to any Western contractor," he said. At this stage of the war, Mr. Sampler said, "everything we do should be done with an eye to getting the Afghans into the driver's seat as fast as possible."
Area security concerns and pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai also prompted the shift, say U.S. officials involved in Afghanistan matters.
Mr. Obama's decision to withdraw 34,000 troops over the next 11 months means there will be few, if any, Marines near the dam after this summer. Security responsibility will fall to Afghan soldiers and police and government-hired security guards, raising risks for foreign construction workers at the dam.
Mr. Karzai has long demanded that USAID channel more development assistance through his government, instead of relying on foreign contractors. He specifically raised Kajaki Dam in January with senior Obama administration members in Washington.
"It's not AID's preferred choice," a U.S. senior official said on condition of anonymity. "But Karzai has been adamant."
The dam, located along the headwaters of the Helmand River, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, was built by the U.S. construction firm Morrison-Knudsen. In 1975, USAID installed two generators in the dam's spillway, but they fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. When U.S. experts returned to the dam in 2002, it was barely running. The chief engineer cobbled together spare parts from scrap metal and using barbed wire to splice electrical lines.
Instead of installing the new turbine in the war's early years, when the area was relatively safe, USAID waited. The agency eventually hired a state-owned Chinese firm to install the turbine, but the Chinese did not start work in earnest until 2007. By then, it was too dangerous to move the turbine parts up the 30-mile road to the dam, which USAID officials dubbed "Hell's Canyon."