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U.S. rebuilds power plant, Taliban reap a windfall

The Wall Street Journal
July 13, 2010
Yaroslav Trofimov
The U.S. has poured more than $100 million into upgrading the Kajaki hydropower plant, the biggest source of electricity in south Afghanistan. And it plans on spending much more, in an effort to woo local sympathies away from the Taliban insurgency.
Yet, one of the biggest beneficiaries of this American-taxpayer-financed project are the Taliban themselves.
Since U.S.-funded repairs of a turbine at the Kajaki plant doubled its capacity in October, nearly half of the total electrical output has flowed to districts in Helmand province where the Taliban administer the grid, Afghan officials say. In those districts, residents pay their monthly electricity bills directly to the insurgents, who use the proceeds to fund their war with American and British troops.
"The more electricity there is, the more money the Taliban make," says Hajji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the government of Helmand.
Helmand is at the center of the war: It is the Afghan province where massive allied operations, such as the push into the area of Marjah earlier this year, have taken place since President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge in December, aiming to reverse Taliban gains. Helmand is by far the deadliest province for U.S.-led coalition troops, accounting for more than a quarter of total fatalities in the nine years of the war.
The Taliban's continuing stranglehold over wide swathes of Helmand means that the provincial government here must seek an informal accommodation with the insurgents on sharing Kajaki's juice. A large part of this insurgent electricity network is used for irrigation, Helmand officials say, boosting the area's main crop—opium poppies.
"It's very easy for the Taliban to control electricity because the transmission cables cross the districts where they are in total control," says Ahlullah Obaidi, the Helmand government's director of electricity and water. "We don't cut power to their areas, and we let them collect all the money there."
The paradox of Kajaki illustrates how well-meaning development projects can generate unintended consequences in the intensifying war. The plant's planned further upgrade is one of many large development programs the U.S. is rolling out in Afghanistan, in a bet that economic progress will sway ordinary Afghans into supporting the government of President Hamid Karzai.
Unlike Afghanistan's state power utility, the Taliban don't use meters. Instead, they charge every household in areas they control a flat fee of 1,000 Pakistani rupees ($11.65) a month. All in all, the Helmand government estimates it loses out on at least $4 million a year in electricity revenue to the Taliban, this in a country where the monthly wages of an insurgent fighter hover around $200.
Taliban commanders have every right to collect bills and manage the electricity system, says the rebel movement's chief spokesman in the south, Qari Yusef Ahmadi: "We are the government there—not the puppet government of Kabul."
Severing electricity is often a tactic to pressure the enemy. In Afghanistan, the geography of the war makes a power cutoff more complicated: The Taliban don't fully control a single large section of territory that can be disconnected, but rather areas intermingled with those under government control, with power lines crossing both.
With billions of dollars, some of it in aid money, streaming out of Afghanistan every year, U.S. development programs here are coming under congressional scrutiny. A Congressional subcommittee last month issued a report on how protection payments by Department of Defense trucking contractors have become a "significant potential source of funding for the Taliban," prompting the launch of a military investigation. A separate House panel last month froze some $4 billion in non-urgent aid to Afghanistan, pending an inquiry into corruption allegations.
The provinces of Kandahar and Helmand—which depend on Kajaki for electrical power—represent the main focus of the allied military effort this year. It is here in the Taliban's cradle that the new coalition commander, Gen. David Petraeus, hopes to deal a knockout blow to the insurgency before the drawdown of American troops slated to begin next July.
U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials acknowledge that the insurgents benefit from Kajaki's electricity. Yet, they say, winning over the South's population centers—Kandahar city and the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah—is the overwhelming priority, and providing them with more power for industries and homes furthers that aim.
"Electricity is changing people's lives. Whatever industry we have in Helmand is booming" since the Kajaki turbine was repaired in October, says Rory Donohoe, the U.S. Agency for International Development field program officer for Helmand. The number of ice-making factories in Lashkar Gah went from one to five, he says, and the local marble polishing plant works three shifts a day instead of just one, all of this providing gainful employment.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior representative in Kabul who serves as the civilian counterpart to Gen. Petraeus, adds that some compromises are inevitable in such a complex conflict.
"We always want to be in a situation where the government of Afghanistan has full authority over every square inch of its territory—but that's not yet the situation," he says.
American civilian and military officials in Afghanistan have been arguing for months over whether further investment is warranted in Kajaki. Civilian officials point to the hydropower plant's sustainability and long-term potential, while military commanders are pressing to remedy the rolling blackouts that strike Kandahar and Lashkar Gah through a quick fix of installing diesel-fuelled generators in the two cities.
At a recent gathering with President Karzai to discuss the planned drive against the Taliban in Kandahar, local tribal elders named reliable electricity as their main priority, says U.S. Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the coalition's day-to-day commander in Afghanistan.
"Support from the population is key to success in a counterinsurgency campaign, and rapidly improving the electrical infrastructure in Kandahar city has the potential to be a critical enabler," he said in an email.
Electricity from the generator banks costs 45 cents per kilowatt hour, however, compared with just 3 cents from Kajaki, according to USAID calculations. In a compromise, the fiscal 2011 budget request for approximately $400 million in U.S.-funded electricity programs in Afghanistan next year includes both the Kajaki upgrade and the Kandahar generator banks, coalition officials say.
Located in the mountainous northern part of Helmand, the Kajaki dam was initially built with American aid money in the 1950s, as part of a vast irrigation project. The USAID-funded hydropower plant went online in 1975, with two turbines of 16.5 megawatts each and built-in capacity for adding more.
USAID returned to the Kajaki plant, which had been damaged after decades of war, following the Taliban regime's downfall in 2001. One turbine was refurbished in 2005, and the other, which broke down in 2008, was fixed last October.
In the fall of 2008, thousands of coalition troops escorted a new, Chinese-built 18.5 megawatt turbine through enemy territory on a 100-vehicle convoy to Kajaki—in one of the largest operations in the Afghan war.
That precious cargo, however, is still sitting in crates at the dam. The Taliban renewed control of the roads after the coalition convoy withdrew. That has blocked the arrival of cement and other material and equipment needed to install the turbine—and prevented the construction of a new road.
The Chinese contractor fled the area. So far, only some seven kilometers of the 35-kilometer road have been built, in part because the Taliban fear it would give coalition troops easier access to the area.
Since the second turbine's repair, some 12 megawatts of Kajaki's output are flowing to Kandahar, 6 megawatts to Lashkar Gah, and the remaining 15 megawatts to the districts of Sangin, Kajaki and Musa Qala where the Taliban control most of the territory, says Mr. Obaidi, the provincial electricity director. A coalition spokesman in Afghanistan, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Todd M. Vician, estimates that about 40% of Kajaki's power is now "lost to transmission problems and unauthorized access."
British troops that had attempted to secure these three districts of Helmand have incurred heavy casualties—with Sangin alone accounting for roughly one-third of Britain's 314 fatalities in Afghanistan. The British now are transferring responsibility for the area to the U.S. Marines.
In the pockets under allied control in these districts, Mr. Obaidi says, the Afghan government collects virtually no revenue because of Taliban edicts that anyone paying government electricity bills must pay the same amount to the insurgents.
Through an array of lines strung haphazardly atop bamboo poles, the Taliban have extended power to villages across that area, often earning local allegiance for bringing electricity to the remote countryside.
"Electricity is important not only for us," says Jalil Shams, CEO of the Afghan government power utility, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat. "The Taliban also want to have lights for their supporters. It is also their lifeline."
Locals in Sangin, Kajaki and Musa Qala say they have been paying the Taliban for electricity since 2006, the year the insurgents asserted their influence across southern Afghanistan.
"The unfortunate reality in Helmand is that there are two governments, the official one and the Taliban one, and both of them have electricity departments," says Hajji Abdulaziz, a tribal elder from the Kajaki district. "At the end of the month, the Taliban department sends someone to knock on the doors to collect the payments. Every collector has wire cutters, and if you don't pay up they cut you off on the spot."
Mr. Obaidi, Helmand's director of electricity and water, says he has never met his Taliban counterpart, the insurgent electricity director who goes by the nom de guerre "Doctor." But Helmand's government has to seek indirect talks with him whenever the transmission line from Kajaki is disrupted, which has happened six times this year.
The worst cutoff was in May. While some of the previous disruptions were accidental, this time the Taliban commanders in the Sangin district deliberately blew up a pylon, Helmand government officials say, and refused access to engineers for repairs. The Taliban deny they intentionally severed the line, saying it was collateral damage from fighting in the area.
In Lashkar Gah, "it was like judgment day" after the cutoff, Mr. Obaidi says, with hospitals no longer functioning, industries idle and the locals unable to dispel the summer heat with fans. The Taliban-held areas enjoyed abundant electricity. "There was power 24/7 in Sangin," says Shamsullah Sarai, a tribal elder from the district.
The situation continued for 11 days. Then, Helmand Gov. Gulab Mangal says he decided to "put pressure" on the Taliban by ordering the Kajaki plant, located in a small enclave under government control, to retaliate by shutting down supplies to Taliban-held zones between the dam and the blown-up pylon. That had an immediate effect.
"The government cutoff put people in big trouble: If you have no electricity here, you can't pump water and your life is in danger," says Hajji Allahdad, a tribal elder from Kajaki district.
A delegation led by the chiefs of the region's main Pashtun tribes—the Alizai, Alokozai and Ishakzai—quickly arrived at the provincial headquarters in Lashkar Gah to seek a compromise between the government and the Taliban, Gov. Mangal says.
A day later, yielding to popular pressure, the Taliban agreed to let engineers repair the pylon, and the two sides worked out an deal under which the insurgent-held areas would cut their power consumption, government officials say. Mr. Ahmadi, the Taliban spokesman, denies there is any accord with the government, but adds: "The Taliban will never cut cables in the future because we don't want to create any problem for the people."
The Lashkar Gah marble factory is busy again, its half-century-old Italian machines, powered by energy from Kajaki, humming as they cut slabs of local stone and carve them into shiny plates, ashtrays and vases. But it isn't clear how long the electricity truce here will last.
"With the Taliban," Gov. Mangal says, "there are no guarantees."
—Habib Zahori contributed to this article.
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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