The Taliban took the school-books away. It also took the flour and cooking oil. It warned the farmers of Kajaki Olya, a village on the banks of the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan, not to accept any other gifts from the British troops struggling to bring order to this corner of the country's most problematic province. Ghulam Madin, an opium-poppy farmer, begs the soldiers to stop coming through his village. He doesn't want any more food or cash, even though his gaunt face and bare feet indicate that he needs both. "Last time you brought us shoes as gifts, and it made big problems for us. The Taliban came and took them away. This time if we take the gifts, the Taliban will finish us for sure."
Major Mike Shervington, commander of a company of British troops stationed in the hills above the village, scowls. For the past few weeks, the Taliban has been following in his footsteps, stealing by night the gifts his soldiers gave out during the day. But the villagers couldn't--or wouldn't--fight back. "We are afraid," says Madin. "The Taliban has force. It has power." Shervington, who leads about 200 men, asks, "More than me?" Madin shrugs. "You will come down and fight, and you will win," he concedes. "But you will win only for one hour. Then you will go back to your base. The Taliban will return."
Just a few miles up the road is the biggest gift of all: a $128 million hydroelectric-dam project that when completed will provide enough power to light 1.7 million Afghan homes, for about a quarter of the population. It has some 200 immediate job vacancies that could provide income to hamlets like Madin's and plant the roots of a thriving community. But the Taliban prevents potential workers from even approaching the dam site. Shervington believes he needs at least another 100 troops to drive out the insurgents in his area, but foreign forces are already stretched thin in Helmand province, and other areas have taken priority. Without additional troops, he can't hope to gain the confidence and cooperation of villagers like Madin. Nor can he wean them off their only source of income: the poppy crop that supplies the opium trade. "I am sure it is like this in places all over Helmand," says Shervington. "There are other companies struggling as much as us. We all want to see success. But we don't have enough troops."
Success in counterinsurgency is about winning trust. And despite billions of dollars in foreign investment--the international community pledged an additional $20 billion at a donor conference in June--the coalition forces in Afghanistan and its government have failed to win over the people they are trying to protect. This means Afghanistan's gains since the fall of the Taliban (more girls are going to school, health care has improved in the cities, business is booming and refugees are returning) are fragile and are threatened by the insurgency, which continues to rage in the south. Helmand--a province the size of West Virginia, with a population of just over a million--is its epicenter.
Inaccessible and untamed valleys throughout the province provide transit routes for drugs, weapons and insurgents across Afghanistan. The government is weak, and there's little rule of law--local police are seen as scarcely more than uniformed thieves. Opium traffickers have a firm grip on the agricultural production of the province, providing credit, seeds and fertilizer to farmers, who have no other recourse than to grow the raw material for heroin--which in turn finances the insurgency. Helmand is the biggest opium-producing region in the world. And it is home to a Pashtun population that has historically resisted centralized rule. It is, says Chris Alexander, the U.N.'s deputy special representative in Afghanistan, "the place where the challenges that used to be nationwide have been swept like dead leaves into a pile." And at the top of that heap is Kajaki, where the struggle to secure and repair one of the nation's most important infrastructure projects has become a symbol of the wider effort to rebuild Afghanistan.
Power for the People
Sixty years ago, the U.S. government embarked on a massive reservoir and irrigation project and dammed the upper reaches of the Helmand River. In 1975 the Americans started the second phase, building a powerhouse and installing two 16.5-MW turbines at the dam's base. At the time, the dam provided enough power to light up the country's southern provinces, but they left room for a third turbine in the powerhouse and laid the groundwork for an even larger power station nearby that could bring the total energy capacity of the Kajaki Dam project up to 150 MW--nearly 20% of Afghanistan's current energy demand.
In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded, and the American project came to a halt. Decades of war and neglect ensued, and the power plant fell into disrepair. By the time U.S. engineers returned to the powerhouse in 2002, it was squeezing out just 3 MW, and even that only because of the efforts of the head Afghan engineer, Rasul Baqi. He and the few remaining engineers improvised, hammering crude approximations of broken parts out of scrap metal and piecing together electrical lines with barbed wire. He never missed a day of work, he says, not even during the worst of the fighting, when the mujahedin stood off against the Soviets in the soaring cliffs just above the powerhouse. "The village still needed electricity," he says simply.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) returned to Kajaki in 2002 to pick up where it had left off. The power station needed to be overhauled, the existing turbines repaired, and the third one put in place. In addition, some 150 miles (240 km) of power lines still need to be strung. It's an overwhelming task, but one that is essential for bringing development and thus security to the country. The dam, says Mark Ward of USAID, "is a critical element in our support for Afghanistan, because it will provide the electricity to drive private-sector growth in Helmand and Kandahar." If Helmand were a country, it would be the fifth largest recipient of USAID funding. The dam is its star project.