Kajaki Dam, Afghanistan: In the heart of territory besieged by the Taliban, one of Afghanistan’s largest hydroelectric dams is at the center of a power struggle that symbolizes the battle between the government and the insurgents.
The Kajaki Dam, which supplies more than three million people in the south – including the towns of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah – is controlled by government forces. But an extraordinary compromise sees the authorities effectively allowing the insurgents around them to bill the inhabitants for energy.
This type of compromise could become more common with the withdrawal of US forces, leaving local government officials and Taliban commanders to find ways to reluctantly live with the status quo even as their leaders fail to agree on them. conditions.
“It’s not our choice. How can we deny them electricity?” said Ghulam Raza, an executive with Turkish company 77 Construction, which is working to triple the capacity of the dam.
During a recent visit, factory officials told AFP that about a fifth of the production was used by the Taliban-controlled districts of Kajaki, Sangin and Musa Qala.
The areas contain hundreds of hamlets and villages which are home to thousands of people.
Insurgents collect taxes each month from residents for the electricity they consume, said Abdul Razak, nominally governor of Kajaki district but whose authority barely extends beyond his office and a few buildings. surrounding the dam.
This silent agreement does not prevent the Taliban from constantly attacking the troops protecting the dam, and the civilians stuck in the middle pay a heavy price.
“This electricity costs too many lives,” the governor told AFP.
The course of the river follows history
Situated between the rocky cliffs that line the Helmand River – the lifeline of southern Afghanistan’s irrigation as it winds its course for more than 1,000 kilometers – the Kajaki Dam was built in the 1950s and its history closely followed that of the country.
As the United States continues to withdraw its forces after 20 years of conflict, security in the areas surrounding the dam is a harbinger of what could happen to us.
The dam was built by an American company to control the flow of water to farmers, then modernized in 1975 by the American aid agency before being abandoned four years later when Soviet tanks rolled in early in an occupation that lasted nearly a decade.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, when Washington was spending millions to win hearts and minds, foreign engineers attempted to finish the job and install a third turbine, but they also gave up.
The Afghan government then hired 77 Construction – which has since installed the third turbine and plans to complete a second plant next year.
Playing on both sides
The difficulties of carrying out any development project on such rugged terrain while surrounded by a hostile force are obvious.
“We are totally dependent on helicopters,” Turkish leader Adel Kiayani told AFP.
“We can’t even bring a tomato without them.”
Still, hundreds of tons of construction materials and equipment have to be trucked in, and local dam workers – mostly from areas controlled by the Taliban – need two permits.
âI have a piece of Taliban paper and a government ID card,â worker Mohammad Akbar said.
Mohammad Daud, a mechanic, also regularly crosses the front line – a journey that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
“It used to take ten minutes, but due to the insecurity it now lasts four hours,” he said. “I am very scared.”
Another worker, Sardar Mohammad, says he warns both sides in advance when he has to cross the front line, but this is not always enough.
âThey fired from this outpost,â he said, describing how a colleague was killed by Afghan government gunfire from a nearby hill.
Officials at the Turkish construction company know they have it better than the troops guarding them.
“The Taliban … like 77 and the projects because they benefit everyone,” said Adel Badloon, a logistics manager.
The likelihood that the developers would abandon the site if the Taliban captured the dam could explain why the insurgents are not putting in more effort.
But they give no respite to the security forces, who have to move on foot from the dam complex to more distant outposts.
“If you get 10 meters (30 feet) away from the path, they will shoot you,” warned Army Commander Dost Nazar Andarabi.
In an outpost, perched on a hillock, soldiers offer a telescope to observe the territory controlled by the Taliban.
There, children play football and farmers work their fields. Everything looks peaceful – until nightfall when shooting begins.
Anyone who ventures into an open area near the front line is at risk of being hit.
At another post, Afghan Public Protection Force Commander Abdul Razeq shows the location where, two months earlier, he said his brother-in-law was killed by snipers.
“When a child is sick, he dies”
Between the dam and the front line is Tange, a market village largely destroyed by fighting and now largely abandoned.
In the rubble of the clay buildings, a heavy silence hangs over them. Only around 30 families remain and only a handful of shops are operating – including a bakery that supplies the armed forces.
But flour can only enter by helicopter, and many basic items, such as cooking oil and rice, are lacking.
âSometimes we don’t eat for two or three days,â said villager Kamal, a former policeman injured in combat.
“When a child is sick, he dies, because we have no medicine or a doctor.”
âWe continue to hope that the situation will improve but it just gets worse and worse,â says Agha Lala, the baker.