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U.S. pushes to complete Afghan dam

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 10:04 p.m.
In this Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 photo, construction worker Abdul Razziq speaks during an interview in Kajaki, Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. The number of workers on a U.S.-funded construction project next to Kajaki has dwindled from 200 to 20 since last fall, and those remaining say workers feel the risk isn't worth the $6 daily paycheck. 'They can't come here because all the routes to the district are controlled by the Taliban,' said Razziq, a 28-year-old villager working on construction of a new district government center next to the dam. (AP Photo/Heidi Vogt)

KAJAKI, Afghanistan — In the approaching twilight of the war in Afghanistan, the United States is forging ahead with a giant infrastructure project — long criticized as too costly in both blood and money.

The project is a $500 million effort to refurbish the massive Kajaki dam and hydroelectric power system with an extensive network of power lines and transmission substations. When completed, the dam is supposed to bring electricity to 332,000 people in southern Afghanistan, increase crop yields and build a cohort of trained Afghan laborers in a region badly in need of them.

The completion, initially set for 2005, now is projected for sometime in 2015 — the year after most combat troops would have left the country.

There are some crucial ifs: If a convoy carrying 900 tons of concrete can make it up a dangerous road to the dam site without a Taliban assault. If the Afghan army can hold out in an area that took thousands of Marines to secure. If the Afghan government can take on the management of the dam.

“It's a long-term bet. I've said to people: ‘We have to be patient, and we have to persevere,' ” said Ken Yamashita, head of USAID in Afghanistan.

The desire to succeed is understandable. The Kajaki dam on the Helmand River symbolizes for both the Afghans and their American backers what they had hoped the infusion of U.S. troops and cash would produce nationwide: an Afghan government that can provide for its people and, in turn, count on its support against the Taliban insurgency.

The United States has spent $22.34 billion on governance and development in Afghanistan since it invaded the country as a result of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much of that on projects to build roads, schools, power plants and irrigation systems. In the past two years alone, $800 million was earmarked for infrastructure projects.

Kajaki is also a symbol of the American presence in Afghanistan dating back to the 1950s and the Cold War. The United States built the original dam, with a powerhouse added in the 1970s. Before the three turbines could be installed, the Soviet Union invaded, and dam construction stopped. The dam still was squeezing out a bit of power in 2001, when the United States attacked. Ironically, U.S. troops bombed the dam's power transmission line.

In the latest phase of the Kajaki saga, fighting as well as limited oversight of spending have led to huge delays and cost overruns. Now Helmand province, home of the dam, has the first and largest wave of U.S. troop reductions, with 10,000 of 17,000 Marines gone. As a result, most of the Kajaki project is going forward with Afghan forces providing nearly all of the security in an area that was a Taliban stronghold until a year ago.

Afghans are hedging their bets.

The number of workers on a U.S.-funded construction project next to Kajaki has dwindled from 200 to 20 since the fall, and those remaining say workers believe the risk is not worth the $6 daily paycheck.

“They can't come here because all the routes to the district are controlled by the Taliban,” said Abdul Razziq, a 28-year-old villager whose family backs the government.

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