US pushes to finish Afghan dam as challenges mount
Kajaki (Afghanistan): In the approaching twilight of its war in Afghanistan, the US is forging ahead with a giant infrastructure project long criticized as too costly in both blood and money.
It`s a USD 500 million effort to refurbish the massive Kajaki dam and hydro-electric power system with an extensive network of power lines and transmission substations.
It is supposed to bring electricity to 332,000 people in southern Afghanistan, increase crop yields and build up a cohort of trained Afghan laborers in a region badly in need of them.
But completion, which originally was envisaged for 2005, now is projected for some time in 2015, the year after most combat troops will have left the country.
And there are some crucial ifs: If a convoy carrying 900 tons of concrete can make it up a dangerous road to the dam site without being attacked by the Taliban. If the Afghan army can hold out in an area that took thousands of US Marines to secure. If the Afghan government can take on the management of the dam.
"It`s a long-term bet. I`ve said to people: We have to be patient and we have to persevere," said Ken Yamashita, the head of USAID in Afghanistan.
The desire to succeed is understandable. The Kajaki dam on the Helmand River symbolizes for both the Afghans and their American backers what they had hoped the infusion of US troops and cash would produce nationwide: an Afghan government that can provide for its people and in turn count on its support against the Taliban insurgency.
The US has spent USD 22.34 billion on governance and development in Afghanistan since it invaded the country following the September 11 attacks, much of that on projects to build roads, schools, power plants and irrigation systems. In the past two years alone, USD 800 million was earmarked for infrastructure projects.
Kajaki is also a symbol of the American presence in Afghanistan dating back to the 1950s and the Cold War. That was when the US built the original dam, with a powerhouse added in the 1970s.
But before the three turbines could be installed, the Soviets invaded and construction stopped. The dam was still squeezing out a bit of power in 2001 when the US attacked and, ironically enough, bombed the dam`s power transmission line.
In the latest phase of the Kajaki saga, fighting as well as limited oversight of spending has led to huge delays and cost overruns.
Now Helmand province, home of the dam, is seeing the first and largest wave of US troop reductions, with 10,000 of 17,000 US Marines already gone.
That means most of the Kajaki project is going forward with Afghan forces providing nearly all the security in an area that was a Taliban stronghold until a year ago.
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