Michael's Dispatches

Afghanistan: Electrification Effort Loses Spark

Anybody seen a better future around here?

21 October 2009

In 2008, I was trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal preparing for a return to Afghanistan. A message came from a British officer suggesting to end the trip and get to Afghanistan. Something was up, and I didn’t bother to ask what. Days of walking were needed to reach the nearest road. After several flights, I landed in Kandahar and eventually Helmand Province at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. The top-secret mission was Oqab Tsuka, involving thousands of ISAF troops who were to deliver turbines to the Kajaki Dam to spearhead a major electrification project. The difficult mission was a great success. That was 2008.  During my 2009 embed with British forces, just downstream from Kajaki Dam, it became clear that the initial success had eroded into abject failure. And then the British kicked me out of the embed, for reasons still unclear, giving me time to look further into the Kajaki electrification failure.

After communications with many American and British officers, a sad picture emerged.

The following message was provided by a well-placed officer. The message has been slightly edited by me for clarification.


ISAF's initiative [at Kajaki] to light up southern Afghanistan following the successful delivery of a third turbine to the Kajaki hydro-electric dam has run into major problems which could set the project 24 months behind schedule.

Last September, US and British special forces spearheaded a 100 vehicle convoy from Kandahar 180 miles across open desert, much of it owned by the Taliban, to Kajaki.  The Operation, codenamed Oqab Tsuka, included 4,000 British, US and Canadian troops in what was hailed as the biggest demonstration since 2006 that ISAF is delivering progress in the south.

The heavily guarded convoy contained what was called T2 (Turbine 2) and was successfully delivered to the US AID built dam after a six-day operation which saw significant fighting by British paratroopers and advance clearance operations by special forces. As it crawled north up the Sangin valley the Brits mounted the biggest deception operation seen since World War Two.

With just one road available which was an obvious target for insurgents' IEDs, special forces located a second, more difficult and remote route. After confirmation that it could be used, a battle group was flown into the area of the main route, giving the enemy the clear perception that the convoy was heading that way. Then a dummy convoy headed up the road, while the Brits used the alternative route out of sight.

But despite last year's success it is now becoming clear that little progress has been made. At the time of the operation a US contractor, known as Kajaki Joe, stated that the turbine would be installed by April 2009 with all three turbines in action by September 2009. However, problems with engineers and missing elements of the turbine have caused significant delays.

When the turbine was delivered only one turbine was in action, another was being overhauled on site with the aim being to install the new one and commission all three into service. Now exactly a year on a report submitted to US AID in Lashkar Gah has suggested that the turbine which was being overhauled needs replacing. Sources in Lashkar Gah say this is a gross overestimate of the situation and that there will be no mission to deliver another turbine.

In 2006 US AID representatives in Lashkar Gah asked the British to play down the project and not to raise people’s expectations about when power would be delivered. The British Foreign Office was quick to try and hijack the public relations spin of last year's success, even though the UK gave no funding to the project.

The overall aim of the turbine mission was to support the power grid in southern Afghanistan. In fact Canada pledged millions of Canadian dollars to the Kandahar economy once the power was plugged into the grid and supplying business in the city.  But the Canadians seem doubtful that power will be switched on before 2014—by which time they will have pulled their troops out of Afghanistan.


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