U.S. military, diplomats at odds over how to resolve Kandahar's electricity woes

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- U.S. military commanders and senior diplomats are locked in a dispute over the best way to bring more electricity to Afghanistan's second-largest city, complicating a major campaign to win over the population of Kandahar and push out the Taliban.

The standoff has reached the top two U.S. officials in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, illuminating the sometimes-sharp differences between the military and civilian officials over how to stabilize this nation.

Convinced that expanding the electricity supply will build popular support for the Afghan government and sap the Taliban's influence, some officers want to spend $200 million over the next few months to buy more generators and millions of gallons of diesel fuel. Although they acknowledge that the project will be costly and inefficient, they say President Obama's pledge to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011 has increased pressure to demonstrate rapid results in their counterinsurgency efforts, even if it means embracing less-than-ideal solutions to provide basic public services.

"This is not about development -- it's about counterinsurgency," said a U.S military official at the NATO headquarters in Kandahar, advocating rapid action to help Afghan officials boost the power supply. "If we don't give them more fuel, we'll lose a very narrow window of opportunity."

U.S. diplomats and reconstruction specialists, who do not face the same looming drawdown, have opposed the military's plan because of concerns that the Afghan government will not be able to afford the fuel to sustain the generators. Mindful of several troubled development programs over the past eight years, they want the United States to focus on initiatives that Afghans can maintain over the long term.

"Proposals to buy generators and diesel fuel for Kandahar would be expensive, unsustainable and unlikely to have the counterinsurgency impact desired," Eikenberry wrote in a cable to the State Department in Washington this month.

Embassy officials contend that they have won the battle because their plan, which calls for small-scale improvements but no diesel or generator acquisitions, received tacit approval at a planning session in Kabul this month from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to the region. Both men would have to sign off on any large purchases.

But military officials have not given up. McChrystal and his top deputies still are considering a variety of proposals to increase the power supply in Kandahar, including the purchase of more generators and fuel, according to senior military officials. The military is also examining ways to provide more diesel to the municipal generators already in place. Those units are operating at about 40 percent of capacity because the Finance Ministry in Kabul has not given the city enough money to buy the fuel it needs.

As a consequence, Kandahar residents fortunate enough to have their homes and shops connected to the city's rickety network of electricity wires typically receive about six hours of power a day. But there are days and nights without a flicker of light, the whir of a fan, the distraction of television. Frequent blackouts have shut down factories and kept people locked indoors after sunset.

"We keep praying for some light at night," said Mohammed Jan, a carpet merchant in the main bazaar. "If there was more electricity, there would be more security."

Dam upgrade a solution?

Instead of buying new generators, the U.S. Embassy wants the United States and its NATO partners to focus on refurbishing the Kajaki Dam, a large hydroelectric power plant in the mountains of Helmand province that has been a symbol of unfulfilled American ambition in Afghanistan from almost the day it was inaugurated half a century ago.

The dam, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, was built in the early 1950s by the U.S. construction firm Morrison-Knudsen. In 1975, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) installed two generators in the dam's spillway, but they fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

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