Friday, December 16, 2011

Powerless in Afghanistan

An engineering operation that the British called the most daring of its kind since the Second World War looks like it might fall, not to Taliban insurgents, but to penny-pinchers in the US Congress.  In September 2008, British Royal Marines hauled a 220-ton generator across 100 miles of hostile territory in southern Afghanistan to the partially-completed Kajaki Dam hydroelectric plant after private contractors refused to move the equipment through Taliban-held territory.  The new generator was meant to complete the hydroelectric plant and to ease chronic power shortages in this region of Afghanistan that includes the strategically-important city of Kandahar.  But since the autumn of 2008, the new generator has sat uninstalled at the dam, and now it looks like it might stay that way permanently.

USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, is questioning whether it makes sense to complete the expensive project in the face of budget cuts from Congress.  USAID's budget was slashed from $4 billion in 2010, to $2 billion this year, with further cuts for 2012 likely.  Installation of the turbine at Kajaki would chew up a big part of USAID's Afghan budget.  Officials are instead looking at other lower-cost options, like improving transmission lines in the region, as a way to ease the power shortages in the south of Afghanistan.  That has the US military leaders in Afghanistan dismayed since Kajaki was to be the signature project for the coalition in the region, making its completion strategically-important in their minds.

The Kajaki hydro plant is just another example of what a muddled mess the Afghanistan mission has become.  To dip into the big bag of writer's cliches, at this point the US needs to go big or go home (I vote for the latter myself), the problem is that the current strategy seems to be to do neither.  We have convinced ourselves that Afghanistan is an area vital to our national security, so the US insists on maintaining our engagement there.  But it is not enough to simply base a lot of troops in the country. In a very real sense Afghanistan doesn't exist as much more than a name on a map; a state and civil society needs to be built almost from scratch.  But the US also insists that it does not want to be involved in nation-building, even though a nation clearly needs to be built.  To make matters worse, we have a Congress that is looking to cut funding for everything that doesn't drop a bomb and the wholly-corrupt regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai for a partner, meaning that much of the money that is sent to Afghanistan never actually gets to its intended project.

Not installing the generator amazingly hauled through enemy territory at great cost may be seen as a fiscally-responsible move by some at USAID, though in reality it means that the money spent up to this point on the Kajaki generator project was simply wasted.  It is another sign of an increasingly pointless mission, and another argument for why it is time to just leave before we waste more money (and likely more lives) on similar projects that will ultimately go unfinished.
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