Story Stream
recent articles

Editor's Note: This article is unique for RealClearDefense for its length and breadth on such a seemingly niche topic of great interest and passion to all those, civilian and military, that served through blood, tears, and heartfelt passion in Afghanistan whether during the original Helmand Valley project, or over the last fifteen years, to make Afghanistan a better, self-sustaining and independent country. This is the first installment of three that will run through Wednesday. 


The first time I saw Kajaki was in March 2006.  I was working in Mongolia at the time with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and was asked to go into Afghanistan on a troubleshooting assignment.  Our biggest contractor, the Louis Berger Group, was on a Kabul-to-Kajaki run to service its field crews, and I hitched a ride on their Bell 212 helo to lay eyes on one of USAID’s oldest and biggest infrastructure projects. 

For the last 23 years, I had worked as a tramp U.S. Foreign Service Officer.  USAID had sent me on assignment to 49 countries in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and I had seen a lot of dams.  What I didn’t know then was that this one was different.  Over the next six years, I would spend 31 months in Afghanistan troubleshooting development projects, especially Kajaki.

Refueling the helo en route to Kajaki in 2006, with a contract shooter. By this time road access to the dam had mostly been cut off by Taliban forces.

The Dam at Ground Zero

In a speech at West Point in December 2009, President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.  The surge ended in late 2012, and made significant gains, but a year before it ended the President announced a complete troop withdrawal by the end of 2014.  I was back in Afghanistan for a third deployment at the time, running the Development Directorate at the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul.  The President’s declaration of a date certain for withdrawal stunned everyone in theater, ally and enemy alike, especially the Taliban, who learned then how long they would have to wait.  

By the ’end of combat operations’ in December 2014, the Taliban were already re-taking ground in southern Afghanistan.  Insurgent attacks intensified the next year.  By September 2015, eight of Helmand’s fourteen districts were either seriously contested by the Taliban or entirely in their hands.  By early 2016 the Afghan Army was abandoning entire districts across the south, and it was retreating in the west.  As of August 2016 the Taliban control about a third of the country.  Only three Helmand districts are under government control, and the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah is surrounded.

The blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan, especially in the south, raises legitimate questions—about the surge, the drawdown, the declaration of a withdrawal date, and the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy employed there.  These issues all converge around Kajaki, the 65-year-old hydropower dam that first brought electricity and year-round water to the south.  Kajaki not only transformed Helmand; from 2007 to 2012, for many of the coalition troops who fought and died there, it was the poster boy for the war.     

Upgrading Kajaki was a top development priority as soon as counterterrorism segued into counterinsurgency in early 2002.  USAID had built the dam’s powerhouse in the early 1970s, and the need to increase power generation in the south was compelling.  With the publication of new COIN doctrine in late 2006, Kajaki also became a top counterinsurgency priority.

Six years later it changed again with the end of Eastern Storm, the operation to take and hold Route 611 so that USAID convoys could transport the materials needed to install Kajaki’s critical third turbine.  USAID’s abrupt disengagement from Eastern Storm in early 2012, and the inability of the operation to achieve its primary objective marked the end of full-spectrum COIN in Afghanistan. 

Today, many criticize the Kajaki upgrade because of cost, delays and casualties, and the fact that the Taliban flooded back into Helmand after 2014.  They have variously called the project idealistic, a fantasy, naively ambitious, destabilizing, a boondoggle and magical thinking

The critics include some with serious throw weight.  Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the famed diplomat who served as Ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, remarked that

Our real mistakes are not doing large-scale projects and not getting them right…It’s even trying in the first place.  They don’t fit the landscape.  Kajaki didn’t fit in the fifties, and it doesn’t fit today.

Gen. David Petraeus, ISAF Commander from 2010 to 2011, called Kajaki a classic case of “overpromising but under-delivery.”  And retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger memorably observed that our inability to finish Kajaki had a “more demoralizing effect than corruption.  What the Afghans don’t understand is how a country can land people on the moon but can’t get the power running.” 

I don’t disagree—at least with Petraeus and Bolger—but I do see Kajaki from a different perspective.  I served as Chief of Staff for USAID in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007, and as Director of Development as ISAF headquarters from 2010 to 2012.  Those assignments were bookends spanning six years during the height of the war, and in both, I aggressively promoted Kajaki as a top development and a top counterinsurgency priority.  That’s because it was then, and it remains today, the only sustainable way in the near-term to get another 18.5 megawatts of electrical power—and the transformational social and economic impact which grid power brings—to the Taliban heartland.       

The recent history of Kajaki presents an object lesson in strategic development and irregular warfare.  Four particular lessons stand out.  First, Kajaki demonstrates why local buy-in is critical for success in executing large development projects in complex insurgent terrain.  Second, using host country institutions for project execution is sometimes the best route to success, even given higher costs, time delays, institutional weakness, and high corruption risk.

Third, Kajaki spotlights a fatal flaw with civil-military integration: allowing the success of military missions to rely on the ability of civilian agencies to perform.  And it demonstrates why the Defense Department (DoD) must lead on strategic development in irregular warfare—social and economic development that’s on the critical path to mission success. 

Finally, Kajaki raises the fundamental question of how and to what extent social and economic development can truly be effective in fighting what is, at its center of gravity, a religious war.  

The Afghan Power Sector

Immediately after the Taliban were routed from Afghanistan in late 2001, planning for stability and reconstruction began.  Power sector donors formulated a flexible blueprint for electrifying the country, where less than eight percent of the population was on the grid.  The 2005 Power Sector Master Plan recommended large scale power imports from the north until domestic sources could be developed.  Between 2005 and 2013 the plan attracted over four billion dollars of investment from the United States, Asian Development Bank, World Bank, and Germany.  Other major power sector donors included India, Iran, Italy, Japan, and the Aga Khan Foundation. 

Today about eighty percent of Afghanistan’s power is imported, from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Iran.  Most of the other twenty percent comes from seventeen Afghan hydroelectric dams.  Fourteen of those are in the northeast. The other three are the Kajaki and Gereshk dams in Helmand province, and the Salma dam east of Herat.  At least eleven others are proposed or under construction. 

Some Afghan dams—Kajaki is one—are contentious because of interstate water conflicts.  These include disputes with Iran over the Helmand and Hari rivers, with Pakistan over the Kunar-Panjshir-Kabul river system, and with the central Asian republics over the Kokcha river.  These conflicts have resulted in multiple cross-border sabotage incursions into Afghanistan, hugely complicating the cost and timing of dam construction and upgrade. 

Like all countries that import power, Afghanistan wants to develop domestic energy resources to reduce its dependence on foreign sources.  In addition to vast hydropower potential, it has major oil reserves and coal deposits.  It also has huge supplies of natural gas in the north that were exploited by the Soviets and are under redevelopment today. 

There are three major but unconnected Afghan power grids.  The small southeast power system (SEPS) feeds power from the Kajaki dam to Kandahar city and to other parts of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.  The western power system (WEPS) is also small and isolated.  It feeds Herat city and surrounding areas with power from Iran and Turkmenistan and from the recently completed (2016) Salma Dam. 

Map: The Afghan Power Sector - SE Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s huge northeast power system (NEPS) is the backbone for future power grid development.  Imported power flows from its northern neighbors through NEPS to northern and eastern Afghanistan, south as far as Kabul and east as far as Jalalabad.  NEPS is critical because of its service area, and because it’s essential to getting sustainable power to Kandahar city and the south in the mid-term.    

Evolution of the Kajaki Dam

The Afghan government started developing the Helmand river valley in the early 1900s with help from Germany and Japan.  After World War II, it used its own foreign exchange to hire the American engineering firm Morrison-Knudsen to develop Helmand valley canals.  The firm recommended construction of a water storage dam to provide irrigation water and built the Kajaki dam from 1951 to 1953.  The money to build it came as a loan from the Export-Import Bank.

In the 1970s USAID entered the picture.  It built a powerhouse at Kajaki designed for three turbines, and installed two 16.5 megawatt plants—Units 1 and 3—which were enough to meet most demand at the time.  The turbines were commissioned in 1975, and transmission lines were built to move the power to the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah and Kandahar city. 

The United States pulled out of Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979.  The Soviets used Kajaki as a recreation base, heavily mining the area and letting the transmission system badly deteriorate.  They left after a Russian platoon’s desperate last stand there against the Mujahideen in 1988.

The Kajaki Dam. Even on a hazy day, the fishing looks tempting…Except access to the best fishing spots are littered with old Russian land mines.

During the Afghan civil war (1988 to 1996) and the Taliban era (1996 to 2001), national power generation dropped by almost half.  The Taliban tried to rehabilitate the transmission lines out of Kajaki, but by 2001 it was producing only about 3 megawatts of power.  The Taliban were nonetheless keen to expand production there, and in August 2001 they contracted with a Chinese company to build Unit 2.  That contract ended a few months later, after 9/11, when the Taliban were routed by U.S. covert, overt and allied Afghan forces. 

The United States quickly started to rehabilitate the dam.  USAID installed stop-gap diesel generators at Kandahar city, Lashkar Gah, Musa Q’ala and Tirin Kot, and in September 2002 it launched a two-phase upgrade plan.  Phase I would refurbish Units 1 and 3, build and install Unit 2, upgrade the transmission lines along Route 611, improve Route 611 and other area roads, and upgrade the Kandahar city distribution system.  Phase II would raise the dam height to increase irrigation potential by 800 square miles, install a second generating station to add 50 megawatts of power, and electrify area towns.    

In 2003, Units 1 and 3 failed in succession.  Voight-Siemens was hired in 2004 to refurbish Unit 1, a job they completed the next year, and a Chinese firm was hired in 2005 to refurbish Unit 3.  Insurgent attacks, however, led British forces to evacuate contract personnel from the site in June 2006. 

In February 2007, as part of Operation Achilles, the British cleared a Taliban village near Kajaki and led a coalition force to defend the dam from attack by some 700 Chechens, Pakistanis, and Uzbeks.  After they established a security bubble at Kajaki, work on Unit 3 resumed.  It was finally completed in September 2009, bringing output back to 33 megawatts.  Of this, twelve megawatts went to Kandahar city and the rest went to Lashkar Gah, Musa Q’ala and Sangin. 

NEPS-SEPS and the Kandahar Bridging Solution

Even as the Kajaki power system deteriorated under communist, Mujahideen, and Taliban rule, SEPS power demand grew.  It was quickly clear that the only realistic way to get sustainable power there in the mid-term was by connecting NEPS and SEPS.  Until that can be accomplished, donors have pursued four interim “Kandahar bridging solutions.” 

The first involves installing Kajaki’s third turbine (Unit 2), increasing output by 18.5 megawatts and delivering 8 to 10 megawatts to Kandahar city after line losses and drop-offs.  This option also requires upgrading most of the SEPS transmission and local distribution systems.  Although oversold as a panacea for Kandahar city power demand, the Kajaki upgrade was never envisioned as anything but an intermediate power source until NEPS-SEPS could be completed. 

The second bridge involves diesel power.  About 33 megawatts of diesel generating capacity was installed in Kandahar starting in 2003.  Output dropped substantially, however, when diesel fuel subsidies were phased out in 2015. 

The third bridge involves installing turbines at the Dahla dam, located 21 miles northeast of Kandahar city.  Dahla was designed for water storage and has sedimentation problems, but in 2011 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) estimated that it could generate 22 megawatts in a far less kinetic area than Kajaki at much less cost.  It contracted for improvements in 2013 but canceled a solicitation to raise the dam in 2014 because of security problems. 

The fourth bridge option involves solar.  In October 2015 the Afghan power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) solicited bids to build a 10-megawatt solar plant near Kandahar city.  The project envisions private investment of about $10 million, matched by $10 million in USAID funding.

For ten years, from 2006 until the installation of Unit 2 in late 2016, these four lines of effort unfolded against a backdrop of shifting military strategy, from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, and back to counter-terrorism again.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles