Story Stream
recent articles

Eastern Storm ended in the summer of 2012.  For the U.S. Marines, not achieving the primary objective of the op was personal.  As one Marine officer put it, “A lot of blood and treasure was wasted just to spike the ball at the 10-yard line.” 

Whether it was worth the price is a question for the survivors.  The operation did, however, have significant payoff.  The convoys that reached the dam in 2012 were thanks to U.S. Marine security.  The operation also helped reduce attacks in Sangin district by 56 percent from 2011 to 2012, it cleared out ‘a number of hornet’s nests in Kajaki district’, and it enabled the United Arab Emirates and British to upgrade Route 611 in 2012.  At a more strategic level, according to Ambassador Crocker, Eastern Storm and the surge “provided some political space for the Afghan government, the Afghan people to consolidate some of their extraordinary gains, to think about long-term political processes.” 

The Marines left their last base in Kajaki in December 2013, and the last British and U.S. troops left Helmand in October 2014. 

Operation Eastern Storm was the last best chance to finish Kajaki with military force protection.  It also marked the end of full-spectrum COIN in Afghanistan.  As the Kajaki plan fell apart, focus quickly shifted away from the campaign plan to the departure of surge forces in September and an orderly shutdown of operations by the end of 2014.   

Plan B

Power demand in the south rose to 125 megawatts by 2014, with only 60 megawatts available—30 from Kajaki and 30 from diesel.  After an 18-month tapering period, wildly expensive fuel subsidies at Kandahar city were finally removed altogether in 2015 and the diesel bridge solution came to an end.  At its peak, the generators brought power to about half of the city, mostly for businesses, with the rest of the population still heavily dependent on Kajaki. 

With coalition troops gone and the Taliban resurgent, the social and economic impacts of declining power in Kandahar city were predictably grim.  Scores of businesses closed, unemployment rose, resentment against the central government grew, and the price of basic necessities shot up.  As one resident said, “During the Taliban, we had city power and security. That was the best time.  This is the worst time we’ve ever faced, without electricity."

Four years after Eastern Storm, completing Unit 2 and the NEPS-SEPS connection remain two of USAID’s last four priority infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.  But the modus operandi has changed. 

What separates Kajaki from the other sixteen hydropower dams in Afghanistan is the Taliban commitment to blocking the Kajaki upgrade.  As much as they want more power, the Taliban are hell-bent on denying the "anti-Islam" west any credit for it.  Rasoul confirmed in 2011 that the Taliban shadow government wants more electricity from Kajaki, along with the ability to collect the revenue and political loyalty it generates from local populations.  But not with U.S. fingerprints.  As a Taliban spokesman said,

We will never let the Americans do anything here, whether installing the turbines or any other project.  They have their own aims, and they never do anything which is good for Islam. 

A potential Afghan contract bidder for the Unit 2 installation confirmed that "There is not enough money in the world to get the cement in there.  The Taliban are determined that this project will never go through." 

Rasoul and other Afghan engineers introduced to me as “talib,” in the Kajaki power house in 2006. The initial tension was defused a bit when they agreed to pose for a photograph, and I agreed to send them a copy.

In May 2013, at President Karzai’s insistence, USAID shifted responsibility for installing Unit 2 to DABS.  Progress ensued.  DABS contracted with a Dubai company in December 2013 for planning and sub-contracting the Unit 2 installation, and in December 2014 the Turkish company 77 Construction was hired to do the work.  Insurgents closed Route 611 in May 2015, however, and late that year the contractors were evacuated.  

To bypass the Route 611 problem, USAID moved “all contractor equipment and material” to Kajaki by helicopter in March 2016.  In August USAID announced that turbine assembly was complete, and all equipment required for Unit 2 installation was on site.  Also in August, DABS announced the shutdown of Kajaki for up to two months while Unit 2 is installed and Units 1 and 3 are upgraded.  During the down time, DABS is providing diesel fuel for stop-gap power to both Kandahar city and Lashkar Gah.        

The SEPS transmission line and substation work also shifted to DABS after 2012, and it has also been plagued by security problems.  The contract for final transmission line construction, equipment installation, and substation commissioning was expected to be awarded in mid-2016. 

Responsibility for the 320-mile NEPS-SEPS connection also shifted to DABS after 2012.  As of June 2016, the northern Arghandi-Gardez transmission line was ninety percent complete and the substations were sixty percent complete.   Both the southern Gardez-Kandahar line and the 10 megawatt solar plant were still in procurement.

In retrospect—and in light of sustained Taliban intransigence, foreclosure of the military force option after Eastern Storm, and the withdrawal of military assets—shifting responsibility for Kajaki, SEPS and the NEPS-SEPS connection to DABS was the smart decision.  As USAID and the Corps of Engineers put it in a joint 2014 letter to the Inspector General,

Afghan companies and DABS are better positioned to hire local laborers, sub-contract portions of the project to local companies, and engage local communities.  That, along with the lack of international contractor presence, will help reduce the security threat and related costs.  The contractors will provide their own security, augmented by the ANSF and ANP.

Enter the Islamic State

There have been at least six reported attacks on the Kajaki dam in the last 30 years.  Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and Chechens were allegedly involved in a February 2007 attack and Pakistanis and Iranians in a May 2013 attack.  The history of trans-border attacks on other southern dams—including the Salma dam upstream of Herat, and the Kamal Khan dam in Nimroz province—lends credence to these reports.  

After the death of Mullah Omar was announced in 2015, the Islamic State moved aggressively to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and claim it as part of historical Khorasan.  A September 2015 attack on Kajaki was allegedly carried out by Taliban in conjunction with the Islamic State, which today has a foothold in the east.  As of mid-2016, the Taliban and Islamic State are increasingly cooperating to carry out insurgent attacks in Afghanistan.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has systematically used water as a weapon of war.  It has dried up downstream areas (the Euphrates dam in Ramadi in 2015); flooded areas to force out inhabitants (a dam near Fallujah in 2014); used impounded water to deflect attack (Fallujah in 2014); and contaminated water with crude oil (south of Tikrit in 2014).  An Islamic State beachhead in Afghanistan would bode poorly for its seventeen hydropower dams, especially Kajaki, Salma and Kamal Khan.     


From 2001 to mid-2016, ISAF lost 3,515 killed in Afghanistan.  Kandahar and Helmand had almost 43 percent of the total, and Helmand alone had 955 fatalities—nearly twice as many as any other province.  Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan were also high.  On the development side there were many hundreds killed, especially in the south.  USAID alone lost 211 killed on its projects by mid-2007, including contractors and grantees.      

U.S. Marines took over from the British at Kajaki in 2010.  Kajaki had reportedly claimed the lives of more than a dozen British soldiers, and at least ten Marines were killed in the area between the summers of 2010 and 2013.  These don’t include others killed during Eastern Storm in other districts.  According to one source, ‘more than 50 American troops were killed in combat operations to evict the Taliban from along the 30-mile road leading to the dam’. 

Future Assessment

The calculus on Kajaki impacts hasn’t fundamentally changed.  From the governance perspective, the Kajaki upgrade will help legitimize whichever government completes it, delivers another 18.5 megawatts of power to the local grid, and collects the revenues. 

Rasoul estimated that ninety percent of the transmission lines out of Kajaki are in areas outside government control, and DABS warned in 2015 that the Taliban already ‘control one-third of the electricity from the Kajaki plant and are taxing residents for it’.  Taliban control of Helmand and most of the SEPS grid, if not the dam itself, appears increasingly likely. 

Most of the social and economic impacts of grid expansion will accrue regardless of who finishes Kajaki—except for educational benefits, given the traditional antipathy of the Taliban to girls’ education and to any but religious education for boys. 

NEPS-SEPS will greatly increase the power supply to Kandahar city, and reduce the urgency for additional power, but it will not meet the growing demand there.  Diverging power supply and demand curves, the fact that most power destined for SEPS will not be available for several years, and the fact that SEPS demand is huge and growing, all argue for finishing the Kajaki upgrade quickly—including the transmission and distribution lines—and getting the additional 18.5 megawatts to the people as soon as possible. 

Of the additional 18.5 megawatts produced, an estimated 10.5 will go to population centers in upper Helmand and 8.0 will go to Kandahar city.  Many would argue that it’s a poor idea to increase electrical power in the Taliban heartland, with the Taliban collecting both revenues and legitimacy. 

Others, however, take a longer view.  They argue that the transformational social and economic impacts that accrue from electrical power will help stabilize Afghanistan over the long run, and help bring it into the 21st century regardless of who controls the dam.  They also argue that the jobs created will help dry up the pool of young males who fight for financial reasons, and that better health services and stronger economic growth will, over time, help mitigate at least some of the conditions that feed the insurgency.  

Either way, the social and economic effects of grid power will accrue incrementally—north to south along the Ring Road and in Kandahar city as the NEPS-SEPS connector is completed, in the upper Helmand valley with the installation of Unit 2, and in other areas as the grid expands beyond the existing trunk lines. 

Phase II of Kajaki will also likely be built, since the rationale for raising the dam height and increasing power and storage capacity is compelling.  An MOU was in fact signed between Turkey and Afghanistan in June 2016 to expand the Kajaki power house, install four 25 megawatt generators, and increase the reservoir capacity by a billion cubic meters.  The work, also to be executed by the Turkish 77 Company, is expected to cost $170 million and to be completed in three years. 

Whatever the actual cost and timeline for Phase II turns out to be, with DABS in control and an Islamic country doing the work the prospects for completion look much brighter than they were for the Phase I Kajaki upgrade after regional security deteriorated. 


Kajaki presents an object lesson in strategic development and irregular warfare.  Four lessons, especially, stand out.    

First, it demonstrates why local buy-in is critical to successfully executing large development projects in complex insurgent terrain.  The absence of buy-in effectively hamstrung the Kajaki upgrade from 2004 to 2013, when it was turned over to DABS, while many other large infrastructure projects that had local buy-in were successfully completed. 

Second, using host country institutions for project execution may be the best and sometimes only feasible route to success, even given higher costs, time delays, pervasive institutional weakness, and high corruption risk.  While completion of the Kajaki upgrade could no doubt be accomplished with enough time and external military force, shifting responsibility to DABS will likely prove in retrospect to have been the best long-term approach to completing it. 

Third, Kajaki highlights 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 those elements of development on the critical path to mission success must be led by DoD. 

In November 2015, military leaders argued against boots on the ground in Syria because in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘inattention and lack of capability by civilian agencies allowed hard-won military victories to slip away.’  That notion is widespread, especially in DoD.  Tradition, institutional culture, authority, and wildly disproportionate human and financial resources are all cited as reasons why the interagency is operationally dysfunctional.  These won’t change in the foreseeable future.  But some U.S. agency has to take the lead for strategic development in irregular warfare, and USAID made clear in its June 2015 manifesto on cooperation with DoD that it has neither the desire nor the intention of assuming that role. 

Only DoD has the ways and the means to successfully execute that mandate.  With the Army Corps of Engineers, and DoD’s deep reservist bullpen, it has the intellectual rigor, manpower, resources, and experience.  The challenge for DoD is to assume leadership for strategic development, embrace the role, reward the soldiers who plan and execute it and institutionalize the responsibility. 

Finally, Kajaki again raises the critical and fundamental question of how and to what extent social and economic development can truly be effective in countering what is, at its center of gravity, a religious war.  While it is an article of faith among many that development will ultimately bring moderation to Islamic societies, hard evidence is elusive.  Detailed and objective analysis of socioeconomic impacts in religious wars—especially Islamic wars—is acutely needed.      

* * *

General Lloyd Austin III once famously said of Iraq, “I want to get this right, so the next generation of U.S. soldiers doesn’t end up back here.”  It was a profound sentiment.  As I see it, though, Afghanistan is just one theater in a single global religious war waged by Wahhabi and Salafist fanatics.  It is an intergenerational war, and my guess is that we will be in and out of Afghanistan for years to come. 

That said, the fight might be shortened if we can get the strategic development part of it right.

Show commentsHide Comments
You must be logged in to comment.

Related Articles