In the approaching twilight of its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is forging ahead with its the giant $500 million effort to refurbish the massive Kajaki dam and hydro-electric power system.
It is supposed to bring electricity to 332,000 people in southern Afghanistan, increase crop yields and build up a cohort of trained Afghan labourers.
The completion, originally was envisaged for 2005, now is projected for some time in 2015 — the year after most combat troops will have left the country. That is if the Afghan army can hold out in an area that took thousands of U.S. Marines to secure and if the Afghan government can take on the management of the dam.
The Kajaki dam on the Helmand River symbolises for both the Afghans and their American backers what they had hoped the infusion of U.S. troops and cash would produce across the nation: an Afghan government that can provide for its people and in turn count on its support against the Taliban insurgency.
It is also a symbol of the American presence in Afghanistan dating back to the 1950s and the Cold War. That was when the U.S. built the original dam, with a powerhouse added in the 1970s. The Soviets invaded and construction stopped.
The dam was still squeezing out a bit of power in 2001 when the U.S. attacked and, ironically enough, bombed the dam’s power transmission line.
At present, fighting as well as limited oversight of spending has led to huge delays and cost overruns, and now Helmand province, home of the Kajaki dam, is seeing the first and largest wave of U.S. troop reductions.
The number of workers on a U.S.-funded construction project next to Kajaki has dwindled from 200 to 20 since last fall, and those remaining say workers feel the risk isn’t worth the $6 daily paycheque.
U.S. officials say the wariness is to be expected at a time of transition. They point out that Afghan security forces have increased their presence around the dam and that attacks, while still regular, appear to be decreasing.