June 26, 2008 – 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.
But because the Taliban controls the only road leading into Kajaki, all the equipment and all the labor have to be flown in by helicopter. John Shepherd, who manages the project for the Louis Berger Group, which was contracted by USAID, says he would be ready to push the start button today if it weren’t for the security problems. His warehouse in Kabul is packed with hundreds of crates of equipment that have to be transported to Kajaki, along with some 300 tons of cement. It would take a convoy of trucks just a few days to bring the materials to the site; by helicopter, it will take several months. Some essential pieces are simply too heavy to be airlifted, like the four 30-ton transformers. “Luckily, they are the last components to be installed,” says Shepherd. “We are hoping once we get that far along in the project the security situation will have changed.”
But if the situation is changing at all, it is for the worse. In May monthly foreign casualties in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq for the first time since 2003. On June 13 hundreds of Taliban escaped in a daring jailbreak in Kandahar city; many joined an audacious attack on a strategic district just outside the former Taliban capital a few days later. Though Afghan National Army forces, backed by NATO troops, were able to contain the assault, it was a stark reminder that the Taliban, declared all but dead in 2002, remains resilient. A campaign of kidnappings, targeted assassinations of government officials and suicide bombings throughout the south has belied claims that stability and security are on the way.
Military officials say the insurgency doesn’t have the numbers to win a conventional fight. But the Taliban doesn’t need to win. It just needs to outlast the will of foreign nations. Few Afghans believe that the Taliban offers a better alternative to the current government, but many are convinced that it will be around longer. When foreign troops can’t even clear a 25-mile (40 km) road through Taliban country to deliver equipment to the dam project, it’s little wonder that villagers along the route aren’t willing to stand up against the insurgents in their midst. “Until we establish security, the dam will do nothing to win the loyalty of the local population,” says Captain Doug Beattie, a British soldier who has done two tours in Kajaki. It is the classic counterinsurgency conundrum: to win the support of the population, you must deliver development, but development can’t take place without security, and security is dependent on popular support. “We have to persuade them that we can provide security 24 hours a day and that they can tell the Taliban, ‘We don’t want you here,'” says Beattie. “[But] we don’t control enough of Helmand to influence how the people think.”
There are only 8,500 British troops in Helmand. According to U.S. Army counterinsurgency doctrine, Helmand needs at least 25,000 troops to be secured–nearly half the foreign forces in Afghanistan. NATO officials call the effort in Afghanistan an “economy-of-force operation,” meaning that the few troops available have to be applied strategically. In Helmand, that means troops are concentrated in urban areas. In Kajaki, according to Lieut. Colonel Joe O’Sullivan, commander of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, of which Shervington’s troops are a part, “the force there at the moment is sufficient to defend the base of the dam and to keep control of the 2.5-mile [4 km] circle of ground there. It is not designed to do any more than that.”
Just a few miles down the road from where Shervington stopped to talk with the farmer is Kajaki Sofla, a bustling town on the banks of the Helmand River that is the local Taliban headquarters. It holds the region’s largest bazaar, an essential stop for daily necessities like tea, oil and sugar. To get to the bazaar, travelers must pass through a Taliban checkpoint, where they are taxed and interrogated. Those suspected of collaborating with the British are beaten, or worse. Shervington can do nothing about it. All he can do is pace his area of operations like a caged lion, impotent against the Taliban forces taunting him on the other side of the bars. “We talk a great game about delivering schools and clinics, but we do nothing,” he tells his soldiers at a postpatrol debriefing. “People want security. Unless we can give them something permanent instead of handouts, they will move out.”
The lack of electricity throughout Afghanistan has been a source of constant frustration. Industries are forced to generate their own power, cutting into payrolls; this means they can’t pay the kinds of salaries that could keep young men away from the Taliban or the opium trade. Without the Kajaki power station, southern Afghanistan cannot escape the quicksand of a drug-funded insurgency. “There are two or three things that can really change people’s lives, and one of them is having electricity,” says the U.N.’s Alexander. “Once work begins on a larger scale, it will show that this is really about improving the life of the people, and that’s where we start to win.”
But so far, few in Helmand believe that the West is that committed; even engineer Baqi is skeptical. When the first turbine began to be rehabilitated in 2004, Shepherd provided him with spare parts and explained the importance of routine maintenance. A few years later, Shepherd, the project manager, noticed that the parts had gone unused. Baqi was hoarding materials, assuming that “at some point, we were going to leave, and that he would need these spare parts to keep the place running for the next 30 years,” Shepherd says. Baqi has seen power change hands so many times that he knows its hold is tenuous. But until Afghans like him believe there can be lasting change, there won’t be any.
On the Front Lines For more photos of the British operation in Helmand province, go to time.com/helmand