A Legacy Under Construction

Canada has spent $50 million on Dahla Dam in Afghanistan…

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By David Pugliese

Ottawa Citizen (Canada)

February 18, 2014

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SHAH WALI KOT, Afghanistan — It is one of Canada’s main legacies in Afghanistan, meant to bring prosperity and jobs and win the hearts and minds of the Afghans in Kandahar province. And it still isn’t fully functioning.

Situated around 35 kilometres north of Kandahar City, the massive Dahla Dam has been visited by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who highlighted it as one of his government’s “signature projects” in this destitute South Asian country. Bev Oda, then the international co-operation minister, called it “one of Canada’s most significant contributions to the Afghan people.”

When Canada’s diplomats, development specialists and soldiers left Kandahar in 2011, our involvement with the dam ended and the government declared the $50-million project a success. But even now, water doesn’t reach 30 per cent of the 500 kilometres of canals that Canada paid to refurbish, according to the U.S. army Corps of Engineers. That’s because the dam itself is not expected to be fully functional until at least 2017.

Afghan farmers told Canadian government officials 13 years ago that for the silt-clogged dam to work, it would have to be raised so more water could be trapped in the reservoir. Better yet, they said, build a new dam.

The job of raising the dam, which will cost between $150 million to $250 million, now falls to the U.S. government.

Some Afghans in the area blame the Canadians for not doing it, although that was never the publicly stated goal of the project. Others say much of the Canadian funding was wasted since it went to pay for security or high-priced foreign contractors and not Afghan labourers.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada won’t detail how the money was spent, saying it cannot divulge a breakdown of the figures because it has to protect the commercial privacy of the firms involved. SNC-Lavalin, the main contractor, also won’t release a breakdown.

Accounting and accountability aside, Canadian diplomats and military officers say the work on the dam has been a resounding success. They say it provides water for farmers to irrigate large tracts of land, allowing them to grow various crops such as pomegranates. If people can make a living, Canadian officials say, support for the insurgents is undercut.

The Citizen recently visited the dam but at the insistence of the Kandahar governor’s office travelled with seven heavily armed bodyguards for protection against the Taliban as well as rogue police officers who might take the opportunity to harass foreign journalists for bribes. Contractors paid for by the U.S. government were working on fixing equipment at the site’s intake tower. Water at the base of the dam’s earthen wall was thick with brown sludge from the buildup of silt.

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, whose command oversees domestic and military missions, was in Kabul in November and received a briefing from Canadian diplomats.

“The update I got was the investment made has had a huge positive impact already, agriculturally, water management, the whole nine yards,” he said. “Notwithstanding that it may not be at a particular end state or end date, the investment has paid out and it continues to pay out.”

Foreign Affairs says the project created 5,000 seasonal jobs, although some Kandahar residents doubt that actually happened. They suggest much of the money instead went to well-connected Afghans and high-priced foreign contractors, and they may have a point.

An estimated $10 million of the $50 million was spent on security, with an undisclosed amount paid to Watan Risk Management, a controversial firm providing for-hire gunmen and run by two Afghan men, Rashid and Rateb Popal.

Both have been convicted of drug-related crimes and Rateb has also been accused by a U.S. congressman of once being an interpreter for the Taliban.

Numerous reports state the men are related to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, but a lawyer for the two denies that is the case. The U.S. military tried to blacklist Watan after allegations surfaced that bribes may have been paid to the Taliban. The firm has denied any wrongdoing…

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…U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan, however, did raise concerns in 2009 about the Dahla Dam project, alleging that it was being used by the Karzai family to consolidate its power in the region and to reward friends. They also noted the Watan connection to the project.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was so concerned that it sent a confidential cable to Washington, later obtained by WikiLeaks, that highlighted the involvement of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s younger brother. The cable also highlighted the role of Watan’s Rashid Popal, who the diplomats stated was a cousin of Ahmed Wali Karzai.

The Americans described Ahmed Wali Karzai, also known as AWK, as the “kingpin of Kandahar” who headed a network of political clans that used state institutions to “protect and enable licit and illicit enterprises.”

The U.S. diplomats also warned that the Karzai family was trying to increase its political dominance over two of the most valuable resources in Kandahar — fertile land and water.

“Production and land values there will increase greatly as a result of Canada’s “signature” rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam and irrigation works,” the U.S. diplomats warned. “Karzai businesses are also set to acquire multiple patronage benefits from Dahla Dam construction and security contracts but the main prize will be political control over long-term allocation of water flows.”

AWK, described by the Americans as “widely unpopular” in Kandahar for the way he wielded his power, successfully lobbied Canada on behalf of the Watan security company, the cable added.

Another 2009 report from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul noted that the Canadians were worried about Ahmed Wali Karzai and his suspected ties to the illegal drug trade.

AWK was assassinated in 2011 by his bodyguard and while the Taliban took credit, some suggest the killing may have been linked to his criminal activities.

Romel Punsalan, who oversees work on the Dahla Dam for the U.S. army Corps of Engineers, is aware of some of the controversy surrounding the project.

But he is more focused these days on trying to get the dam up to full capacity. Workers are fixing valves and the intake tower and are expected to be done by early 2015.

After that the Americans plan to raise the height of the dam by five metres. That should improve the volume of available water and deal with the silt that has built up over the last 60 years. It should also allow the irrigation ditches cleaned under the Canadian program to be fully utilized.

Punsalan hopes work on that phase will start this summer and be completed by 2017.

But he doesn’t know how it might be affected by the U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan.

“I’m not sure what will happen,” Punsalan said from Kabul. “All I’m directed to do is continue planning and moving forward.”

The Dahla Dam is not the only such project to run into problems. About 95 kilometres northwest of Kandahar City is the Kajaki Dam, the main source of electricity for Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Like Dahla, it was built in the 1950s by an American company and deteriorated because of a lack of maintenance. Kajaki’s turbines still operate, albeit inefficiently.

The Taliban in the area have constantly attacked coalition troops and prevented any significant repairs. Dozens of soldiers have been killed in the ongoing clashes, including Canadian Forces Master Corporal Darrell Jason Priede, a military photographer whose helicopter was shot down near Kajaki in 2007.

The ongoing problems were highlighted by Canadian Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, who warned that the situation was hindering international efforts in the province. “The lack of access to electricity continues to be one of the top concerns of the people of Kandahar, a problem which has been exacerbated by a turbine failure at Kajaki Dam,” Gauthier wrote in a February 2008 report obtained by the Citizen.

“The people of Kandahar continue to see an imbalance between (reconstruction and development) efforts conducted versus their stated needs. Specifically, they state that unemployment and lack of electricity are their greatest concerns but do not see corresponding (reconstruction and development) effort in those specific efforts.”

To improve the availability of electricity, NATO mounted one of its largest military operations in 2008: An estimated 4,000 soldiers, most of them British, were involved in transporting a new turbine from Kandahar Airfield to the Kajaki Dam.

The mission was heralded as one of the British army’s biggest success stories from Afghanistan.

Ultimately though, the effort was a failure. It was too difficult to truck in the cement needed to build a pad for the new turbine because of insurgent attacks. The Chinese company hired to install the machinery abandoned the project because it was too dangerous. The turbine sits, rusting, in a dirt lot near the dam, according to reports.

The U.S. government is now paying an American firm to install the turbine and other work will be done to refurbish the hydroelectric power system. The work on the $500-million project is ongoing and it’s unclear when the turbine will be installed, if ever.

In July 2013, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told Congress his office remains “concerned about the prospects of success at Kajaki.”

In the meantime, with the Kajaki Dam still not functioning properly, the U.S. military has tried to solve Kandahar’s energy shortage a different way. In 2011 it paid for the installation of large, gas-powered generators in the city, capable of producing 20 megawatts of power.

The Americans will cover the $106-million cost of the generators and fuel until 2015.

After that, Kandahar City may be back to square one without a reliable source of electrical power; the Afghans can’t afford the fuel needed to keep the generators running.

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On Their Own

After more than a decade of war, Canadian soldiers — and the rest of the West — are about to pull out of Afghanistan for good. Are Afghans ready to go it alone?

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KANDAHAR CITY, Afghanistan — A cigarette butt and a half-eaten plate of rice lie on the polished stone of what used to be known as the Camp Nathan Smith Memorial Square. The square, named after one of the first Canadians to die in this volatile country, was once a place of honour, where photos of some of the Canadian soldiers killed were displayed and Remembrance Day ceremonies were held. Today, weeds dominate the former base for Canada’s provincial reconstruction team.

At the height of the war, the camp was home to 300 Canadian soldiers and 80 civilians, including development workers, diplomats and police, and was the cornerstone of Canada’s reconstruction and aid efforts in Kandahar province.

The installation now houses a small number of Afghan security forces, but even they don’t want to stay. Afghans want to turn it into a women’s centre, though they don’t have the money to do that and international donors aren’t interested.

So the base sits and slowly falls apart.

Thirteen years after the West went into Afghanistan to take out al-Qaida and the Taliban and then build up the country so they could not return, there is a war-weary desire to cut and run that wasn’t here before.

Although it is expected that some training personnel and advisers from the United States and other nations will remain, the pullout is in full swing.

In the north of the country, the Norwegians have closed down their provincial reconstruction team. In the southeast, the Australians have yanked their combat troops.

And in mid-March, a small group of Canadian soldiers will haul down the Maple Leaf flag at their base in Kabul and walk onto a transport aircraft for the flight home, the last to serve in Canada’s largest military deployment since the Second World War.

In the haste to get out, much is being left behind. U.S. soldiers are chopping up armoured vehicles, which cost $1 million each, and selling them to Afghan scrap-dealers for a couple of hundred dollars. Sea containers full of equipment are stacked on the outskirts of Kandahar, the contents ready to be auctioned off to local bidders.

What can’t be moved or sold is simply abandoned. In Helmand province, a $34-million state-of-the-art military command centre built by the U.S. army sits empty. Around Kandahar, bases that once housed international troops are deserted.

But there’s a gulf between walking away from some buildings and walking away from a mission that didn’t turn out exactly as planned. So as the remaining soldiers snap up T-shirts that say “Whoever leaves last, please turn out the lights,” the question on many people’s minds is simple: Can the Afghans, alone, find their way in the dark?

The first Canadian troops — a few dozen commandos — arrived in late 2001 in support of the U.S. bid to eliminate al-Qaida. Early the next year, 750 regular forces joined them. After those initial efforts in the Kandahar region, the military settled into what was essentially a peace support operation focused on Kabul. Security was provided for the 2004 Afghan elections, soldiers patrolled parts of the city, while some development work, such as digging wells and making repairs to buildings, was also done.

The mission ramped up in 2005 when the Liberal government supported the recommendation by the Canadian military leadership to send combat troops to Kandahar province. The following year the Conservative government extended what was supposed to have been a limited mission, setting in motion a period of intense warfare the likes of which Canadians had not seen since the Korean conflict.

That same year, Canada signed on to the Afghanistan Compact, an agreement between the government of Afghanistan and the international community to support the process of reconstruction in Afghanistan. This included a pledge to take measures to increase security, strengthen human rights and the rule of law, and promote economic and social development. Those goals were amplified by the 2008 Manley report, which advised the government to extend the military mission past 2009, while refocusing the civilian side of the mission on aid that would directly benefit the Afghan people. It recommended the creation of “signature” projects that could be used to showcase Canada’s efforts on behalf of Afghans.

The government accepted many of the report’s recommendations, and adopted three signature projects: the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam and its irrigation system, the construction of 50 schools in Kandahar, and the eradication of polio throughout the country.

For Canada’s senior diplomats and military leadership, the Kandahar mission unfolded in an atmosphere of optimism.

Col. Steve Bowes, who headed the first provincial reconstruction team in 2005, predicted the insurgents would be defeated within two years. Two years after that, retired Gen. Paul Manson, once Canada’s top military officer, wrote that the Taliban could lay no claim to any military successes and that they were in trouble. Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier went further, suggesting the insurgents were on the verge of defeat, teetering on their “back foot” as he liked to say.

With the insight that comes with hindsight, Canadian Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, who has commanded a number of times in Afghanistan, today acknowledges the gulf between the optimistic statements and how events unfolded.

“The list of how much we didn’t know was quite substantial, vis-a-vis the nature of the challenge that had been allowed to emerge,” said Beare, the commander of Canadian Joint Operations Command. “So our understanding of what we were getting into versus the reality had to be discovered by doing.”

The Canadian Forces, he added, learned and adapted quickly.

Though not all targets were met, Canadian government and military officials look back on the 12-year Afghan mission with pride. Officers point out that coalition military efforts pushed al-Qaida out of Afghanistan, denying the terrorist organization a training base.

The final government report on the Kandahar mission, released in March 2012, found that Canada had achieved 33 of its 44 development targets, including one of its signature projects of building 52 schools and the training of more than 3,000 teachers.

There is no doubt development efforts have had some success…

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