In a high-stakes gamble, a combat force of multinational troops has delivered a 200 metric ton turbine to a hydroelectric facility in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. The initiative posed security risks in its delivery phase and will provide many more in its installation and operations phases to come, according to informed sources.
To get the massive turbine from the city of Kandahar to the town of Kajaki in southern Afghanistan, a convoy under British command secretly moved 100 miles over rugged roads through some of the war-torn nation's most hostile territory. A report from the British Army on Wednesday states that the operation involved more than 2000 U.K. soldiers and an additional 2000 Afghan and NATO troops.
The objective of the mission is to help repair a hydroelectric dam at Kajaki that had been damaged by decades of fighting in the region. The Kajaki power station was built in 1975 with funding from USAID, an American civilian aid agency. At its peak, the dam's three turbines had an output capacity of 53 megawatts (MW), delivering electricity to the 1.5 million inhabitants of the remote province, as well as serving as a water resource for irrigation in the agricultural basin. However, years of turmoil saw two of the turbines fail, reducing its capacity to 16 MW.
The British Army account said that its armored troops not only took part in the secret convoy but cleared the path ahead of enemy activity, engaging Taliban fighters close to its route.
"This is a significant military operation, which demonstrates that our strategy of delivering civil effect is making progress in southern Afghanistan," said Lt. Col David Reynolds, on behalf of the British task force in Helmand. "Ultimately, success in Afghanistan is about more than defeating the Taliban or the absence of fighting. It's also about creating jobs, security, and economic development."
Nevertheless, experts in the U.K. had deep reservations about proceeding with repair work on the dam and its associated electrical grid at this time. In an article yesterday from Britain's Manchester Guardian posted to a site affiliated with the Ministry of Defence (see Kajaki Turbine Worth the Effort?), defense experts wondered if the turbine installation, valued at US $100 million, will turn out as planned due to stiff opposition from insurgents in Helmand.
Engineers the Guardian spoke with said it will take months to properly install the turbine and get it fully operational, as well as years to repair the electrical lines running from it to the surrounding region. Even then, military experts told the newspaper, the dam and its grid will be subject to ongoing sabotage until the province is cleared of insurgent activity. Last year alone, at least 700 Taliban fighters crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan to reinforce insurgents attacking the Kajaki dam.
"The power lines coming out of Kajaki are going to be extremely vulnerable to attack," said Matthew Clements, an analyst at Jane's Defence. "The arrival of the extra turbine is a major blow to the Taliban, so they are going to be keen to make sure the project fails."
Only a single transmission line connects the Kajaki power plant to the capital of the province, Lashkar Gah, but NATO engineers plan to install $77 million worth of new transmission lines to connect villages in the rest of the province in the years ahead, according to the Guardian account.
"In Iraq we've seen that overhead power lines are extremely difficult to protect, and there's no point generating electricity if you can't distribute it," Paul Smyth, head of operational studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, told the U.K. newspaper.
It's a tough assignment to rebuild war-ravaged infrastructure in a setting where ground combat is taking place on a regular basis. Still, it's a sign that the allies of the Afghani government are trying to employ a two-pronged strategy in the unconventional war they find themselves in: armed suppression of enemy fighters and relief efforts for the civilian population at the same time.
We can only wish this latest example of the latter all the best of luck in its future progress.
[Editor's Note: For a detailed report on similar obstacles that coalition forces faced in rebuilding the power grid in Iraq, please see Re-engineering Iraq (2006) by IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette.]