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 Afghan Dam Saga Reflects U.S. Travails

The Wall Street Journal
By Michael M. Phillips

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Six Decades On, America Is in Race to Wrap Up Troubled Power Project

KAJAKI - The U.S. plans to spend $471 million in the waning years of the Afghan war to conclude work on a dam and electrical-power system that over six decades have come to symbolize America's soaring ambitions and crushing disappointments here.

Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah conceived the dam project in the mid-1940s to irrigate a breadbasket in the desert. President Harry Truman embraced the project as part of the struggle for global dominance with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

The dam was first completed in 1953 and the power station in 1975. The current aid package is intended to refurbish and wrap up the project. It was made possible late last year, a full decade into the U.S. war, when Marines secured the road leading to the hydroelectric site.

Despite its 60-year incubation, the dam project is in a race against time. The Marines are now beginning to withdraw from Afghanistan, which will leave it largely up to barely tested Afghan troops to keep the road safe for workers and supplies.

The existing turbines, though unreliable, provide about half of the electricity going to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, areas the U.S. and its Afghan allies are trying to pry away from the Taliban. Yet the project's irrigation canals also water fields of opium poppies, helping to make Helmand the source of about 45% of the world's heroin.

Richard Olson, who heads the development office at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, says the Kajaki project will "continue to affirm our commitment to a stable, sustainable Afghanistan" and make the Helmand Valley "fully viable" by providing water for irrigation and electrical generation.

Filled by melting winter snows, the Helmand River tumbles out of the Hindu Kush range, joins with the Arghandab River near Kandahar, then pivots west into arid Helmand province and Iran.

To build the original 320-foot-high earthen dam, Afghanistan in the 1940s hired a Boise, Idaho, engineering firm, Morrison Knudsen, which had helped build the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The Afghan king's aspirations meshed with U.S. Cold War strategy. In his 1949 inaugural address, Mr. Truman linked the success of rich countries to economic growth in poor ones.

By the early 1950s, the U.S. Agency for International Development was a major funder of Kajaki. American workers and their families lived on a bluff near the dam; the king had his own house on site with a view of Helmand River sunsets.

From the start, though, the project was plagued by problems, including waterlogging and salination of farmland, according to a 2002 paper by Indiana University historian Nick Cullather.

In 1975, the U.S. and Afghanistan added a power station at the dam, with two 16.5-megawatt generators. Between them was left a cavernous hole for a third turbine.

The 1979 Soviet invasion derailed U.S. participation in the project. Within a few years, the dam was producing only enough power to light its own offices. The Soviets fled in 1989, paving the way for the rise of the Taliban. The Islamist government rebuilt electrical lines, but used low-grade wiring that burned out frequently. The two turbines decayed, halving the power they produced. The third turbine didn't materialize.

A few years after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime, British troops moved into the former workers camp at Kajaki and renamed it Forward Operating Base Zeebrugge. It was an isolated position; the road to Kajaki was made almost impassable by insurgents' booby traps.

In 2008, some 5,000 allied troops, most of them British, fought their way to FOB Zeebrugge with pieces of the long-awaited third turbine and an 18.5-megawatt generator. Then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown called it "yet another example of the skill and courage of our forces."

But a Chinese contractor hired to install the turbine quit after waiting months for supplies, according to Sayed Rasoul, the power station's chief engineer. The parts now sit rusting on a dirt lot near the dam. "In the past four years nobody has gotten anything done," says Sharafuddin, Kajaki District governor, who uses only one name.

Seven months ago, U.S. Marines secured the last stretch of road connecting Kajaki to major southern cities. Two crosses at FOB Zeebrugge bear the names of a score of British and American troops lost defending the dam.

In recent decades, Mr. Rasoul has had to jury-rig equipment to keep electricity flowing under Communists, mujahedeen, Islamists, Britons and now Americans and their Afghan allies. "With each regime change, our salaries went up a little," he said.

With the U.S. combat role due to finish by the end of 2014, American officials are pushing ahead to refurbish the dam and the electricity grid all the way to Kandahar, the major southern city. USAID is paying Black & Veatch Corp., of Overland Park, Kan., $266 million to install the third turbine, upgrade substations and do other work. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will spend $205 million to rehabilitate the dam and improve power lines and substations.

Roseann Casey, a USAID division chief, says the agency is counting on U.S. and Afghan forces, and private security firms, to protect workers. "Having said that, security is and will always be a concern and could threaten progress on the project," she said.

Work was supposed to start last month, but didn't, partly because Pakistan has closed supply routes out of anger over U.S. airstrikes on its territory. Construction seems more likely to begin in September or October.

Still, U.S. officials promise the project will be done by the end of 2014. "They weren't going to give up on it during the Cold War because it would have been a blow to the prestige of the United States government, and they're not going to give up on it now for the same reason," said Prof. Cullather.

Write to Michael M. Phillips at michael.phillips@wsj.com

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