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

By the time U.S. experts returned to the dam in 2002, it was barely running. The chief engineer at the time, Rasul Baqi, was cobbling together spare parts from scrap metal and using barbed wire to splice electrical lines.

In 2003, USAID hired the Louis Berger Group, a Washington-based engineering firm, to rehabilitate the two turbines. The agency later hired a state-owned Chinese firm to install a third. But the Chinese did not start working on the project in earnest until 2007, and by then it was too dangerous to move the turbine parts up the 30-mile road to the dam, which USAID officials began to call "Hell's Canyon."

In September 2008, 4,000 British troops were reassigned to Kajaki to escort a large convoy of trucks bearing parts of the turbine. After the British left, security deteriorated along the road, preventing delivery of the cement needed to emplace the turbine. The Chinese contractors departed soon thereafter, and Louis Berger was forced to use helicopters to bring in the supplies to finish its work.

The dam produces about 33 megawatts of electricity with the two rehabilitated turbines, of which about 30 percent reaches Kandahar. As much as 40 percent of the electricity is lost to theft and transmission inefficiencies.

Frank Kenefick, a former USAID project manager who worked on the dam, said the agency rejected a proposal from a German firm to install the third turbine before violence closed the road. USAID, which has spent $47 million on the dam thus far, also did not take advantage of the relative calm in the early part of the decade to put up new transmission lines needed to convey the additional electricity -- something the agency wants to do now but cannot because of security concerns.

"The strategic planning was a complete failure," Kenefick said.

Although military officials support efforts to fix the dam once violence abates in the area, they view a reliance on repairs as incongruous with the prevailing security situation.

"The dam may be the answer at some point in the future," said a U.S. reconstruction expert advising the NATO headquarters in Kandahar. "But right now, you'll get killed if you try to drive up there."

Different perspectives

USAID officials have asked military commanders to deploy more troops to the Kajaki area so construction can resume. But the question of whether the dam should be a focus for military forces centers on different interpretations of what it means to protect the population, the buzz phrase of counterinsurgency strategy. To the military, it means concentrating troops where the people are -- in and around Kandahar. But to some civilians, it makes sense to put forces in less-populous areas if they can secure an important public resource.

Military and civilian officials also remain divided over whether increasing electricity in Kandahar will have a substantial effect on the security situation there. Military officers in southern Afghanistan maintain that if residents' power supply increases, they will have a better opinion of their government and employment will increase, which will help to marginalize the Taliban.

The top NATO commander in southern Afghanistan, British Maj. Gen. Nick Carter, said increasing power in the city will produce a "head-turning moment" among residents and will lead them to rally behind the Afghan government.

But embassy and USAID officials contend that Kandahar residents are more concerned about the lack of a credible justice system and the dearth of employment. Civilian officials say small generators could be used to reopen factories and run cold-storage facilities, but they worry that increasing electricity across the board will lead more people to buy air conditioners and refrigerators, resulting in a continued shortage.

Instead of buying fuel, Eikenberry and other embassy personnel want the electric utility in Kandahar to do a better job of collecting fees and to use the money to buy fuel for the generators it already has, which would increase supply but not eliminate the shortage. USAID is offering help through its Afghanistan Clean Energy Program, a $100 million effort to promote "green" power in the war zone. The agency plans to install solar-powered streetlights in the city this year. It is also paying for repairs to some of the existing generators, but it will not buy diesel for them.

The city, which is home to about 850,000 people, receives about 16 megawatts of power. Military officials estimate demand at about 50 megawatts, a target they think they can achieve within three months by buying new generators and more fuel.

By contrast, generators at the sprawling NATO base at the Kandahar airport produce more than 100 megawatts of power, which is used to operate thousands of air conditioners, computers and floodlights.

If the embassy and USAID will not pay for generators and fuel, military officials want to ask other nations, particularly oil-rich Persian Gulf states, for help. But the embassy has opposed a separate entreaty out of concern that it will compete with other requests for reconstruction assistance.

As he sat in a well-lit pizzeria on the base, a stabilization expert working for the NATO command in Kandahar called the lack of electricity in the city "the principal symbol of the government's inability to deliver services to the people."

"We've been here for eight years, and we've been building things like this," he said, pointing around him. "It's time we helped the people inside the city."

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