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. Instead, the agency intends to hand over to the Afghan government the challenging task of installing a large hydropower turbine.
The dam is one of many reconstruction projects, once deemed essential, that are being scaled back rapidly and redesigned in the waning days of America’s long war in Afghanistan as troop reductions, 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 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 thecomplex project, jeopardizing a vital initiative to increase electricity production, which they deem crucial to the region’s long-term stability.
The Kajaki Dam was built by U.S. engineers in the 1950s, and it has long been regarded by Afghans as a manifestation of American ingenuity and assistance. Should the Afghan-led installation fail, the civilian experts fear that the structure will come to represent American abandonment and weakness.
Military officers who lost comrades in the area see it in far more personal terms. “A lot of blood and treasure were wasted just to spike the ball at the 10-yard line,” said a senior Marine officer involved in the campaign to secure the dam, speaking on the 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, estimated to cost $70 million. But instead of having a U.S. contractor perform the work, USAID intends to give the money directly to the Afghan state-run electricity company, which will be responsible for hiring experts and managing the 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,” Sampler said.
At this stage of the war, he said, “everything we do should be done with an eye to getting the Afghans into the driver’s seat as fast as possible.”