When U.S. Marines surged into southern Afghanistan in 2010, one of their top priorities was to secure a towering dam on the Helmand River so the U.S. Agency for International Development could begin a construction project to provide much-needed electricity to Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city.

Simply reaching the outskirts of the Kajaki Dam was perilous. More than 50 U.S. troops were killed in combat operations to evict the Taliban from areas along a 30-mile-road leading to the structure.

Now that Marines and Afghan soldiers have seized the dam and the surrounding areas, USAID has decided not to complete the most critical part of the $266-million project itself. Instead, the agency intends to hand over the challenging task of installing a large hydropower turbine to the Afghan government.

The dam is one of many reconstruction projects, once deemed essential, that are being scaled back rapidly and redesigned in the waning days of America’s long war in Afghanistan as troop reductions, declining budgets and public fatigue force a realignment of priorities. But USAID’s decision to walk away from the turbine installation — one of the most important and symbolic development efforts associated with President Barack Obama’s troop surge — is drawing unique scrutiny.

Several civilian experts who have served in southern Afghanistan contend the Afghan government lacks the ability to manage the complex project, placing in jeopardy a vital initiative to increase electricity production, which they deem crucial to the region’s long-term stability.

The Kajaki Dam was constructed by U.S. engineers in the 1950s, and it has long been regarded by Afghans as a manifestation of American ingenuity and assistance. Should the Afghan-led installation fail, the civilian experts fear that the structure will come to represent American abandonment and weakness.

Military officers who lost comrades in the area see it in far more personal terms. “A lot of blood and treasure were wasted just to spike the ball at the 10-yard line,” a senior Marine officer involved in the campaign to secure the dam said on the condition of anonymity.

Put Afghans in control

USAID officials insist the U.S. government is not abandoning the turbine project. The agency, they noted, will still pay for the costs of the installation, estimated at about $70 million. But instead of having a U.S. contractor perform to work, USAID intends to give the money directly to the Afghan state-run electricity company, which will be responsible for hiring experts and managing the construction.

Larry Sampler, a senior USAID official responsible for Afghanistan programs, said the agency believes the Afghan electricity company, known by the acronym DABS, has developed the skills to take charge of the project. “We’re confident that DABS will be able to meet a timeline comparable to any Western contractor,” Sampler said.

At this stage of the war, he said, “everything we do should be done with an eye to getting the Afghans into the driver’s seat as fast as possible.”

Concern about security in the area and pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai also prompted the shift, according to U.S. officials involved in Afghanistan matters.

Obama’s decision to withdraw 34,000 troops over the next 11 months means there will be few, if any, Marines in the area around the dam after this summer. Security responsibility will fall to Afghan soldiers, police officers and government-hired security guards, raising the risks for foreign construction workers at the dam.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long demanded that USAID channel more development assistance through his government instead of relying on foreign contractors. He specifically raised Kajaki Dam in January with senior members of the Obama administration in Washington.

“It’s not AID’s preferred choice,” said a U.S. senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But Karzai has been adamant.”

‘Hell’s Canyon’

The dam, located along the headwaters of the Helmand River, about 100 miles northwest of Kandahar, was built in the early 1950s by the U.S. construction firm Morrison-Knudsen. In 1975, USAID installed two generators in the dam’s spillway, but they fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

By the time U.S. experts returned to the dam in 2002, it was barely running. The chief engineer cobbled together spare parts from scrap metal and using barbed wire to splice electrical lines.

Instead of installing the new turbine in the early years of the war, when the area was relatively safe, USAID waited. The agency eventually hired a state-owned Chinese firm to install the turbine, but the Chinese did not start work in earnest until 2007. By then it was too dangerous to move the turbine parts up the 30-mile road to the dam, which USAID officials dubbed “Hell’s Canyon.”

In September 2008, prior to the arrival of U.S. Marines, 4,000 British troops were reassigned to Kajaki to escort a convoy of trucks bearing turbine parts. After the British left, security deteriorated along the road, preventing delivery of the cement needed to install the turbine. The Chinese contractors soon departed.

In 2011, once Marines started combat operations along the road, USAID awarded a $266 million contract to Black & Veatch, a large construction firm based in Overland Park, Kan. USAID now plans to reduce the contract, but the firm will continue work on installing new power lines and substations between the dam and the city of Kandahar, which has been a focus of U.S. military operations. American commanders have argued that increasing the electricity supply in Kandahar will build support for the Afghan government among the population.

Question assessment

Some civilian experts and military officers question USAID’s assessment that the Afghan electricity company is up to the challenge. In an audit last year, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that DABS lacked the “technical and operational capacity to properly install and manage” a far less complicated electricity distribution project in Kandahar.

The inspector general, John Sopko, warned in a speech last month that providing development funds directly to the Afghan government means less accountability for how that money is spent. “I fear many of our programs will be exposed to increased risk of theft and misuse,” he said.

But concerns about inefficiency need to be subordinated to the more pressing imperative from the White House to wind down the war and transfer responsibility to the Afghans, said the senior U.S. official. “This decision serves our interests,” the official said. “It allows us to draw back.”

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