The sun is poking through mist on a humid Wednesday morning in early April as we drive west through the city of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan. The place doesn’t look too bad, considering that just a couple of days ago rioters demolished stores and homes here after word got out that a minister in Florida had burned a Koran. In Kandahar alone 16 people were killed and 128 wounded.
Our destination is the only electrical substation within city limits, a creaky relic from the 1970s outfitted with Bulgarian switchgear and other electrical esoterica, including a 25-megavolt- ampere transformer that’s so old it has to be hosed down on hot days to keep it from overheating. I’m traveling with Chief Warrant Officer 5 Thomas Black, the deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers task force headquartered at Kandahar Airfield, the huge coalition air base to the southeast. He wants to make some voltage measurements at the plant.
I’m tagging along because I am trying to determine whether the hundreds of millions of dollars committed to electrical equipment and construction and fuel have made any difference at all in the vast, chaotic, decadelong effort to weaken the Afghan insurgency, stabilize this notoriously failed state, and push it in the general direction of the 21st century.
Our group is traveling in three military vehicles called MRAPs (mine resistant ambush protected). The one we’re in weighs about 16 tons and costs about US $500 000. We’re rolling down Kandahar city’s main road, a broad thoroughfare with a parklike median that’s lush with flowers and trees. I stare out through one of the MRAP’s tiny trapezoidal rear windows, as thick as a Dean Koontz novel.
For now, at least, the streets are calm. Small groups of men and boys sit in the median, tending the plants or talking in the late-morning languor. A smoky, musty smell hangs in the air. The street is lined with small, dusty, crumbling, cubelike, open-front sidewalk stores selling produce, meat, hardware, tires, bricks, poles and thatch, and other goods. During the drive I see goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, horses, and dogs. Outside the stores are men wearing loose Afghan qmis shirts and shalwar pants. Some men glare at us; most ignore us. Scattered groups of young boys throw rocks at us. The very few women out are in full burqas, gun-metal gray, a gaping mesh oval over the eyes and nose.
Kandahar is Afghanistan’s second city, behind Kabul in the north. But where Kabul has nearly round-the-clock power now, Kandahar’s 850 000 people have it only fitfully, about 40 megawatts at most. For comparison, NATO’s airbase nearby, with about 30 000 people, has about 100 MW.
Kandahar is primitive by any standard, a backwater of a backwater. Afghanistan ranks in the bottom 10 percent of the world in electricity use per capita, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook. And that deficiency is much more acute in the south than in the north. Most Kandaharis make do with 4 to 6 hours a day at most. The transmission and distribution systems throughout the south are frayed and dilapidated, spliced and respliced by hand so many times that the lines can now handle only about two-thirds of the current they could 25 years ago. Many feeders in the region experience multiple outages a day, typically because two lines have slapped together or because the current has arced or “flashed over” old and cracked insulators.
Here in southern Afghanistan, the local linemen scramble up utility poles in baggy garb and sandals, without safety belts, rubber gloves, or any other protective gear. Only a small fraction of the workers can read, their boss will later tell me.
As they did in Iraq, the coalition forces in Afghanistan have spent or committed tens of billions of dollars to building and refurbishing infrastructure, including roads, schools, hospitals, and water systems. It is an enormous effort involving dozens of government agencies and hundreds of contractors. Among the government organizations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is dominant, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other military organizations have big roles as well. The Asian Development Bank and the governments of India and Germany have also funded a few large projects.