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US pushes to finish Afghan dam as challenges mount

Sunday - 1/6/2013, 3:40am  ET

This Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 aerial photo shows the Helmand River in Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. In the approaching twilight of its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is forging ahead with a giant infrastructure project long criticized as too costly in both blood and money. (AP Photo/Heidi Vogt)

HEIDI VOGT
Associated Press

KAJAKI, Afghanistan (AP) -- In the approaching twilight of its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. is forging ahead with a giant infrastructure project long criticized as too costly in both blood and money.

It's a $500 million effort to refurbish the massive Kajaki dam and hydro-electric power system with an extensive network of power lines and transmission substations. It is supposed to bring electricity to 332,000 people in southern Afghanistan, increase crop yields and build up a cohort of trained Afghan laborers in a region badly in need of them.

But completion, which originally was envisaged for 2005, now is projected for some time in 2015, the year after most combat troops will have left the country. And there are some crucial ifs:

If a convoy carrying 900 tons of concrete can make it up a dangerous road to the dam site without being attacked by the Taliban. If the Afghan army can hold out in an area that took thousands of U.S. Marines to secure. If the Afghan government can take on the management of the dam.

"It's a long-term bet. I've said to people: We have to be patient and we have to persevere," said Ken Yamashita, the head of USAID in Afghanistan.

The desire to succeed is understandable. The Kajaki dam on the Helmand River symbolizes for both the Afghans and their American backers what they had hoped the infusion of U.S. troops and cash would produce nationwide: an Afghan government that can provide for its people and in turn count on its support against the Taliban insurgency.

The U.S. has spent $22.34 billion on governance and development in Afghanistan since it invaded the country following the Sept. 11 attacks, much of that on projects to build roads, schools, power plants and irrigation systems. In the past two years alone, $800 million was earmarked for infrastructure projects.

Kajaki is also a symbol of the American presence in Afghanistan dating back to the 1950s and the Cold War. That was when the U.S. built the original dam, with a powerhouse added in the 1970s. But before the three turbines could be installed, the Soviets invaded and construction stopped. The dam was still squeezing out a bit of power in 2001 when the U.S. attacked and, ironically enough, bombed the dam's power transmission line.

In the latest phase of the Kajaki saga, fighting as well as limited oversight of spending has led to huge delays and cost overruns. Now Helmand province, home of the dam, is seeing the first and largest wave of U.S. troop reductions, with 10,000 of 17,000 U.S. Marines already gone. That means most of the Kajaki project is going forward with Afghan forces providing nearly all the security in an area that was a Taliban stronghold until a year ago.

Afghans here are already hedging their bets.

The number of workers on a U.S.-funded construction project next to Kajaki has dwindled from 200 to 20 since last fall, and those remaining say workers feel the risk isn't worth the $6 daily paycheck.

"They can't come here because all the routes to the district are controlled by the Taliban," said Abdul Razziq, a 28-year-old villager working on construction of a new district government center next to the dam.

His family supports the government, so he at least doesn't have to lie to keep his place of work secret. Not so Timur Shah, who spends a couple of months at a time working at Kajaki. "My immediate family knows I am here. But if anyone else asks they will make something up," he said.

Shah said security improved when U.S. Marines flooded the province, but is deteriorating as the Marines leave.

"Just at the time the American forces started leaving here, the Taliban started to appear again, in the whole area," Shah said.

Cellphone service also stopped working in Kajaki district in late fall. It is common for insurgents to disrupt service in areas they control, though the construction workers say they're just as ready to believe to say the Americans blocked calls.

U.S. officials say the wariness is to be expected at a time of transition. They point out that Afghan security forces have increased their presence around the dam and that attacks, while still regular, appear to be decreasing.

"There's an ebb and flow," said Marine Capt. Glen Baker, one of a small group of Marines who continue to hold an outpost in Kajaki and advise Afghan forces in the area. "There was an increase when the Marines pulled out and there has been a decrease subsequently."

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