It was bad enough that the U.S.-led effort to build a $300 million diesel power plant in Afghanistan was three times over budget, but making matters worse is the fact the Afghans cannot even afford to utilize the over-engineered monolith to political expediency.
So, the most expensive backup power source on the planet is now situated in one of the world’s poorest countries – a tragedy that is due to the overriding necessity of getting Afghan President Hamid Karzai re-elected at, apparently, any and all cost.
This isn’t the first civil engineering catastrophe the U.S. has bestowed upon the Afghan people. During the 1950s, as America was trying to seduce Afghanistan away from the communists, the U.S. proceeded to destroy the Helmand River Valley as the result of a dam project gone awry; and on a separate occasion the U.S. convinced the Afghans to build an international airport they did not truly need. The common thread in each and every fiasco being the subjection of Afghanistan’s long-term needs to U.S. reasons of state.
Blinded by Karzai
Afghanistan to this day consumes less energy per person than any other country in the world. The U.S. target has been to provide power to 65 percent of urban and 25 percent of rural households by the end of 2010, but after all of the reconstruction investment and after nine long years Afghans with access to electricity has only increased from 6 percent in 2001 to an estimated 10 percent today.
Nine out of 10 Afghans live without access to power and only 497,000 of the country’s 4.8 million households are connected to the national power grid, even though $1.6 billion has already been sunk into energy projects. Satellite pictures taken at night are shocking, displaying a country engulfed in a sea of darkness, dotted with flyspecks of light.
First the U.S. and NATO spent years developing an energy strategy that was focused on reducing the country’s reliance on diesel as their primary power source. The goal was to buy cheaper electricity from neighboring countries and develop Afghanistan’s own natural resources, such as water, natural gas and coal.
All of that was abandoned when U.S. and Afghan officials decided to build the diesel plant on the outskirts of Kabul in 2007 in a rush to judgment to help Karzai win re-election. The timeline was hectic and unreasonable which also led to the eye-bulging cost increases. According to the Associated Press:
Never mind that the plant would make the country more, not less, reliant on its fickle neighbors for power. Never mind that Karzai’s former finance minister pleaded with U.S. officials to drop the idea.
The U.S. plowed ahead, turning the project over to a pair of American contractors, including one already scolded for wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on shoddy reconstruction projects. The U.S. team paid $109 million for 18 new diesel engines to be built — more than the original cost of the plant — only to discover rust and corrosion in several of them.
As the plant’s costs and schedule veered wildly off course, the payouts to Black & Veatch also ballooned. USAID refused to disclose the amounts paid as costs increased, but contract records obtained by The Associated Press show expenses and fees paid to the company tripled from $15.3 million in July 2007, when the project was estimated at $125.8 million overall, to $46.2 million in October 2009, when the price tag reached $301 million.
Ahmad Wali Shairzay, Afghanistan’s former deputy minister of water and energy, summed up the value of the too-cost-prohibitive-to-run white elephant beautifully:
“Instead of giving me a small car, you give me a really nice Jaguar. And it will be up to me whether I use it, or just park it and look at it.”
U.S. Cold Manichean Worldview
Immediately after WWII the U.S. set its sights on trying to protect every nation possible against the dark cloud of communism so were very eager to help Afghanistan develop its country, thus they started the Helmand River Valley irrigation and hydroelectric project in 1946.
According to the book Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, a politically well-connected firm by the name of Morrison-Knudsen Company took on the Helmand River job – a project that lasted from 1946 through 1963 with a total monetary investment estimated at $150 million.
However, the company failed to perform adequate engineering surveys prior to construction resulting in two defective dams and a canal system that ended up flooding the valley floor and ruining the crops which led to a decade of lost, irrecoverable revenue.
Meanwhile, the U.S. foreign policy establishment had been experiencing a strategic drift towards a new entity in the region. The U.S. aligned more closely with Pakistan soon after the country was established during the early stages of the Cold War in the 1950s, as opposed to Afghanistan primarily because of their lack of cultural knowledge about Pashtuns and their fear of abandoning British policy and recommendations. The very little the Americans did know about Afghanistan they learned from the British – which means anything they did learn was either not positive or wrong.
The U.S. saw Pakistan as a pro-Western government wedged between a neutralist and left-leaning India and a backwards and unfamiliar Afghanistan. They were also impressed and felt comfortable with the English-speaking British-trained Pakistani officials. Afghan’s uproar over the Durand Line and pursuit of Pashtun reunification concerned the anthropologically-challenged Americans.
From the dawn of the Cold War the U.S. held a Manichean view of the world and placed a country in one of two camps: “you’re either with us or you’re with them”, meaning the Soviets. So, the U.S. foreign policy establishment at the time felt nuance was too high a risk, thus were threatened by anything that could be considered radical in anyway, including nationalism, humanism, secularism, socialism, etc.
Muslim fundamentalists just happened to be against these forces as well, so the U.S. found common cause with the Islamic right. Ironically, for 100 years Afghanistan had been growing more progressive, especially under King Zahir Shah, but its modernism and emerging free-thinking tendencies actually caused consternation among U.S. policymakers.
Afghan leaders and diplomats were puzzled by the U.S. reluctance to provide assistance or grow the relationship considering the Soviets had enhanced their level of financial aid to Kabul.
However, by the mid-1950s the U.S. slowly saw the error of its ways and felt that it would be disastrous and destabilizing for Afghanistan to fall into the Soviet camp. By 1956 the U.S. then scrambled to gain influence through civilian projects and once again turned to the brilliant Morrison-Knudsen Company to build the Kandahar international airport, which appeared on surface to be “an additional $15 million worth of American incompetence”.
It was sold to the Afghans as an opportunity to reestablish itself as a stopover for travel to and from the Orient. However, the airport came online just as long-range jets made such stops unnecessary. Its impractical location also required that all fuel be trucked over mountainous terrain from neighboring Pakistan.
The U.S. State Department itself called the ambitious project: “a monument to poor planning.” Then it was leaked by several military and civilian government officials that the airport served a “bigger picture” military and strategic function as a potential Air Force recovery base in case there ever was war with the Soviets.
It’s kind of interesting that the U.S. stopped referring to the Kandahar campaign as a “military offensive” and began framing it as a civilian-led reconstruction and nation-building effort, because based on these projects I wonder if some Afghan tribal elders and other old-timers might be unsure as to which is worse.
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