Infrastructure and Irregular Warfare: A Good Year for Afghan Dams

Infrastructure and Irregular Warfare: A Good Year for Afghan Dams
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There are few elements of strategic infrastructure more important in irregular warfare than hydroelectric dams.  They address two of the three biggest development priorities in most countries—power and water—and they have huge, multigenerational social and economic impacts.  Dams also help legitimize the government that operates them, since they provide key basic services to the people at the same time that they raise revenue through the sale of electricity.  Because of that, some dams are aggressively targeted by insurgents. 

Afghanistan imports around 80 percent of their available grid power from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Iran.  Most of the rest comes from seventeen existing Afghan dams.  Fourteen are in the northeast; the other three are the Kajaki and Gereshk dams in Helmand, and the newly operational Salma dam in Herat.  Another eleven dams are proposed or under construction. 

Six Landmark Projects

It’s been a banner year for Afghanistan’s hydroelectric dams, with major progress on six large projects, as well as on a massive dam in Tajikistan that will provide power to northeastern Afghanistan. 

Kajaki Dam.  The biggest news out of 2016 is that after ten years, and much blood and treasure, the third turbine at the Kajaki dam in northern Helmand province is finally operational.  With USAID funding, and under management by the national power utility Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), the 18.5 megawatt unit was reconstructed in the summer of 2016, installed in August and September, and commissioned on October 1st.  With all three turbines operational, the maximum generating capacity of Kajaki will increase to 51.5 megawatts. 

Also in 2016, an agreement, albeit preliminary and nonbinding, was signed with a Turkish firm for Phase II at Kajaki.  The Phase II expansion is designed to increase output by another 100 megawatts, and increase water storage capacity by about 810,000 acre-feet.  

Salma Dam.  After more than forty years, the Salma dam on the Hari River in western Afghanistan was finally inaugurated in June 2016.  Originally funded by the Saudis in 1974, the project was turned over to India in 1988.  India provided about $300 million to complete the dam, long plagued by sabotage and other security problems. 

The Salma dam has three 14 megawatt turbines, two of the three successfully commissioned this year.  Thirty megawatts of that power is destined for Herat.  The reservoir has a storage capacity of about 520,000 acre-feet, enough to irrigate about 300 square miles of land.  

Kamal Khan Dam.  One of the most contentious hydropower facilities in Afghanistan, the Kamal Khan Dam on the Helmand River in Nimroz province, began in 1973.  Repeated sabotage attempts stalled construction, including four separate attacks in late 2015 alone that killed four engineers working at the site.  Phase 2 of Kamal Khan, construction of the main earthen structure, was nonetheless completed in December 2015.  Upon completion, the dam will produce about 8.5 megawatts of power and provide enough water to irrigate up to 385 square miles of land. 

Naghlu Dam.  Contracts signed in 2016 by DABS for reconstruction of the turbines at the Naghlu dam was made possible with World Bank funding.  The largest dam in Afghanistan, Naghlu is located at the confluence of the Kabul and Panshir rivers about 50 miles east of the capital.  It is a major source of power for the city of Kabul, and refurbishing the turbines will raise output from 75 to about 100 megawatts.

Bakhshabad Dam.  In June 2016, after forty years of delay because of alleged Iranian sabotage, the Afghan government finally signed a detailed design contract for the Bakhshabad dam on the Farah River in Farah province.  Bakhshabad is expected to impound 810,000 acre-feet of water, enough to irrigate 385 square miles of land, and generate 27 megawatts of power.  

Baghdara Dam.  Located on the Panjshir River, the proposed Baghdara dam is still in the design stage.  If built, it is expected to produce 210 megawatts of power and store 324,400 acre-feet of water.  Most of that is destined for Kabul.  Out of the dozens of hydropower dams that are under consideration in Afghanistan, Baghdara got a special boost in 2016 when Afghanistan’s High Economic Council, chaired by President Ashraf Ghani, decided to expedite investment in the dam. 

Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam.  While not physically located in Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s massive Rogun Dam—originally designed as the tallest dam in the world—will produce 3,600 megawatts of electricity when completed.  In planning since 1976, construction on the dam finally launched in October 2016. 

The Rogun Dam has been highly contentious for a variety of reasons, not least because of potential agricultural impacts in neighboring Uzbekistan.  Far more important from a counterinsurgency perspective is its potential to bring large amounts of electricity to the extremely remote insurgent havens of northeastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan.        

Security Implications 

While Afghan dams are the key to reducing the country’s reliance on energy imports, security remains the sine qua non.  Security problems related to the country’s hydropower facilities fall into three general categories: state-sponsored sabotage, insurgent attacks, and attacks by criminal networks.    

State-Sponsored Sabotage.  Many Afghan dams are contentious because of interstate water conflicts.  These include disputes with Iran over the Helmand, Farah, and Hari rivers; with Pakistan over the Kunar-Panjshir-Kabul river system; and with the central Asian republics over the Kokcha river. 

State-sponsored sabotage of Afghan dams dates back decades, with most allegations pointing to Iran and Pakistan.  The primary focus has been the bigger hydropower dams in the south and west that drain into Iran—the Salma, Kamal Khan, Bakhshabad and Kajaki dams.  

Of six reported attacks on the Kajaki dam in the last 30 years, two were cross-border.  Pakistanis, Uzbeks, and Chechens were allegedly involved in a February 2007 attack and Pakistanis and Iranians in a May 2013 attack.  The intensity of attacks on the Kamal Khan Dam has been even more intense, with four transboundary attacks in two months in the latter part of 2015 alone.   State-sponsored sabotage of the Salma and Bakhshabad dams has also been widely reported.   

Insurgent Attacks.  While the Taliban are often accused of complicity in attacks on dams like Salma, and threatening dams like Dahla in Kandahar province, most of their attacks appear to have focused on Kajaki and the smaller Greshk hydropower dam in lower Helmand province.  Troops stationed at dam sites naturally present opportunistic targets, but for the Taliban the motives for attack, especially at Kajaki, are more complicated. 

At Kajaki, located in the heart of the Taliban homeland, the insurgents have focused for years on wresting control of the dam from the national government.  Their primary motives appear to be to keep the U.S. from getting credit for the project, to delegitimize the national government, to build legitimacy for their own governance in the eyes of the people, and to raise money through the sale of electrical power. 

Interestingly, after fifteen years of attacking road, power, water, aviation, communications, mining and border infrastructure, including hydropower dams, in November 2016 the Taliban made a 180-degree pivot and offered to guard several major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan that ‘promote national development and prosperity.’  These included the Aynak copper mine and the proposed transnational TAPI gas pipeline.  The shift was characterized as an attempt to transform the insurgency “into a political movement capable of governance.”  

The Islamic State, however, has shown no such inclination.  After the death of Mullah Omar was announced in 2015, ISIS moved aggressively to establish a presence in Afghanistan and claim it as part of historical Khorasan.   A September 2015 attack on Kajaki was allegedly carried out by the Taliban in conjunction with ISIS, which now has a foothold in eastern Afghanistan and is increasingly cooperating with the Taliban to execute insurgent attacks.  

In Iraq and Syria, ISIS 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 ISIS beachhead in Afghanistan would bode poorly for the country’s seventeen hydropower dams, especially Kajaki, Salma and Kamal Khan.     

Criminal Network Attacks.  The third source of insecurity for Afghan dams comes from indigenous criminal networks.  The huge volume of money and materials required to build and maintain the dams, especially in the war zone, basically act as chum for predatory criminals. 

While criminal attacks are not focused on the primary infrastructure of the dams themselves, by targeting the contractors and workers who build and maintain the structures they can have a profound effect on project cost, duration, and ultimately success.  The local and regional criminal networks that preyed on Indian and other contractors building the Salma dam are an excellent example.  There are many others.    

Convergence.  These three sources of insecurity for Afghanistan’s hydropower dams—state-sponsored sabotage, insurgent attacks, and attacks by criminal networks—sometimes converge.  Most notable is the case of the Salma dam, where all three were major factors impeding completion of the project at one time or another, sometimes concurrently. 

Another example is the Dahla dam.   While fears of insurgent attacks directly on Dahla never fully materialized, there has been a great deal of Taliban activity along nearby roads and rat lines and in nearby population centers, at the same time that criminal networks and allegedly corrupt local security contractors have operated near the dam with relative impunity.   

A Good Year for Afghan Dams

Strategic development is critical in three kinds of irregular warfare—counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, and stability operations.  While basic social and economic services are important to mission success, the biggest development priorities in most countries are typically roads, power and water.  These affect people’s lives in fundamental ways, and their impact on communities is enduring.  For decades after the developer is gone, people remember what conditions were like before.   

Hydropower dams are special because they deliver both power and water in very large quantities, transforming entire regions over time.  There are few locations in the world where they better ‘fit the landscape’ than in Afghanistan.  People have centuries of experience with water management, and excellent hydropower development sites occur in almost every province.  

Afghans get this, and while they simultaneously develop other energy sources—from natural gas to solar to small-scale hydro—they have never wavered from prioritizing large-scale hydropower as the best way in the long-run to make the country less energy-dependent.    

2016 will go down as a very good year for Afghan dams.  Thanks to Afghan leadership, the development organizations that finance the projects, and the military and police who protect them, the social and economic benefits these dams generate will raise the standard of living for generations of Afghans to come.  They will also, gradually, help bring some of the most isolated populations anywhere into the modern world.

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