Afghan dam project in peril

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Kajaki Dam project in Southern Afghanistan is a symbol of US involvement in the country going back to the 1950s. In recent years, the project has been a priority for international development efforts, but the Taliban insurgency has put the success of the dam at risk. Washington's foreign aid agency USAID has now put the Kajaki project on hold amid security concerns. Matthew Bell has the story.

MARCO WERMAN: Helmand province in southern Afghanistan is a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency. It's also the site of a multi-million dollar hydroelectric power project. Recently the U.S. Foreign Aid Agency, USAID said it is putting the project on hold indefinitely because of a lack of security. As the World's Matthew Bell reports, the United States has a long history with this particular project.

MATTHEW BELL: The first American president to talk about giving development aid to Afghanistan to strength American security was not George W. Bush. It was under Harry Truman that U.S. engineers launched an ambitious plan to build the Kajakai Dam in southern Afghanistan. Work on the massive project continued from the 1950s through the 70s. It was a success in many ways says Thomas Gouttierre of the University of Nebraska. Gouttierre spent 10 years living and working in Afghanistan, beginning in the early 1960s. He says the damming of the Helmand river valley vastly improved agriculture and it also provided electricity to the whole region.

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: The third major contribution is that the projects, and there were several of them that were all interwoven, employed Afghans.

MATTHEW BELL: Gouttierre says tens of thousands of Afghans worked on the U.S. funded dam project. They used it as a job training opportunity. He adds that Helmand's prosperity helped Afghanistan become a net exporter of fruits and grains. But in 1979, that ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the years of civil wars that followed. After the U.S. and its allies toppled the Taliban, they decided to revive the Kajakai Dam project. Thomas Gouttierre says it made perfect sense.

THOMAS GOUTTIERRE: To be able to re-start the agricultural capacity, the electric grids and power would have an exceedingly positive impact on the economy of individuals throughout that

region. Again, Afghanistan is going through its worst depression in its history. Up to 70% of the population of Helmand Valley is unemployed.

MATTHEW BELL: That has fueled both the opium trade and the insurgency. Fifteen months ago, NATO troops delivered a giant hydroelectric turbine to the Kajakai Dam. It was a major security operation but since then, the main road leading to the dam has been a frequent Taliban target. U.S. officials have now decided to postpone installing the turbine because of security concerns. Afghanistan expert Andrew Wilder of Tufts University says it's a public relations failure. Wilder says the dam project is also an example of how the U.S. and its western allies are trying to use development aid to achieve security objectives and it's not working very well.

ANDREW WILDER: This dam is in a way a good example of that. It probably didn't make sense to invest a whole lot in rehabilitating it in the middle of a war situation but it was done. There was a major aspect of we can use this to help win hearts and minds in the conflict in southern Afghanistan.

MATTHEW BELL: Wilder says it's not that the Kajakai Dam along with the host of other western funded aid projects is a bad idea.

ANDREW WILDER: Afghanistan clearly has major needs for more power generation. I think it would be a good idea to be investing in power generation, more roads, schools, and clinics. My only point is that there's not a lot of evidence that doing that is actually going to help defeat the insurgency because the insurgency is largely being driven by other factors, not primarily by a lack of infrastructure, roads, schools, or clinics.

MATTHEW BELL: The new priority for U.S. and NATO forces in the Helmand Valley will be to secure the major population centers, which means holding off on projects like the Kajakai Dam. For the World, I'm Matthew Bell.