No Power to the People

An eight-year effort to bring electricity to Afghanistan has been squandered

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” This is show number 69.

Last week marked the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and the effort to rebuild the country goes back at least to 2003. Through both the Bush and Obama administrations, tens of billions of dollars have been thrown into the development of roads, agriculture, telecommunications—and one of the most woefully backward electrical grids on the planet.

Our very notion of the developed versus developing world is largely based on electricity, because everything else depends on it—factory work, telecommunications, agriculture. Education is a very different thing without electricity, and modern medicine is impossible without refrigeration, monitoring equipment, ventilators, and a thousand other devices.

Eight years later, what do we have to show for all that money? It’s a question that’s as large as the expenditure itself. My guest today, Spectrum’s Executive Editor, Glenn Zorpette, spent three weeks in-country and countless other hours trying to answer the part of the question that concerns electrical generation.

His 14-page special report is the cover story of our October issue. It comes five years after similar reporting on Iraq reconstruction won the 2007 Grand Neal Award and was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Glenn, welcome to the podcast.

Glenn Zorpette: Good to be here, Steven!

Steven Cherry: Glenn, it’s easy for those of us in the developed world to take electricity for granted; blackouts and brownouts are the exception and not the rule. In places like Afghanistan, it’s the other way around. How bad is it?

Glenn Zorpette: It’s—well in southern Afghanistan in particular, it’s very bad. In fact, in much of northern Afghanistan outside of the immediate area of Kabul, electricity is something that Afghanis see for a few hours a day—a few being, well, anywhere from 2 to 6. Now I have to, I have to sort of qualify that a bit, because there are millions of people in Afghanistan who live in very rural villages who don’t even have any. So you’re talking about a country where only a relatively small fraction of the populace has any electricity, and they get, like I say, between 2 to 6 hours.

Steven Cherry: Let’s cut to the chase. How much has been spent on electrical generation in Afghanistan, and what do we have to show for it?

Glenn Zorpette: That’s a very good question. What we know is that roughly [US $]55 billion has been spent on reconstruction. And that’s reconstruction of all kinds. That’s roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, lots of things. It’s not as well broken down as it used to be in Iraq. In Iraq I would get these beautiful color-coded pie charts. I haven’t—I didn’t see those in Afghanistan. What I do know is that it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I know that because a single large diesel plant, which has turned out to be largely useless, cost just over $300 million—by everyone’s account. A 105-megawatt plant just outside Kabul, at a place called Tarakhil. And that cost, that plant cost a little over $300 million, as I say. And that’s not it—I mean, there’s some other figures that pop up. They’re now trying to give southern Afghanistan an electrical network of sorts—transmission lines that would actually connect the north and south of the country. These projects, to give Afghanistan something like a modern electric grid, are budgeted at $1.2 billion, and they’ve started spending money on those. I would say that although, you know, overall reconstruction has been $55 billion, I would be surprised if electricity was over a billion. I would, I would say it’s still in the hundreds of millions somewhere.

Steven Cherry: So Glenn, a lot of money in Afghanistan seems to have been wasted and—but there was one project that seemed to, to illustrate it more than any other. Tell us about Karzai’s winter coat.

Glenn Zorpette: Yes, the—this is the famous Tarakhil power plant. It was built at a place northeast of Kabul, a little village called Tarakhil. And the idea was proposed that bringing power to Kabul would have helped get Hamid Karzai reelected. And an academic who studies Afghanistan later told me that this was a complete misreading of Afghan politics—that no one would really attribute this success to Karzai. But indeed this was lost on the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], the chief U.S. government development agency in Afghanistan. And so plans were drawn up to build a 105-megawatt plant. Things went wrong almost from the start. It was a sort of a comedy of errors. The, the plans wound up being in metric units rather than imperial. The blueprints for the plants were riddled with errors, according to the subcontractor, Symbion, that was supposed to build it. There were problems with the lease for the land on which the plant was built, which took a long time to get straightened out. And then, finally, when all these things were straightened out and they were ready to go, it was the beginning of Ramadan and the Afghan workers who were supposed to build the plant couldn’t work. So it was—as I say, it would be a comedy of errors if it were funny, but it wasn’t really funny. And this led to a dispute between the subcontractor that was supposed to be building the plant, which was Symbion, and the prime contractor, which is Black & Veatch, which was working for USAID. So what happened was that Black & Veatch and Symbion sort of fired each other. They both sent letters, actually—Symbion, I think, actually started after Black & Veatch refused to pay them for a number of months, Symbion claims. Symbion notified Black & Veatch that they were ending the contract. Black & Veatch responded with its own letter ending the contract. That’s now being arbitrated in, in Europe somewhere, I think, in France—a decision is expected any day—and Black & Veatch ultimately took over and built the plant itself. The plant wound up being about two years late, and nearly $200 million over budget. It’s a 105-megawatt plant that uses diesel fuel to generate electricity. Diesel fuel is super…is extremely expensive in a war zone. It has to be trucked in through dangerous areas and so on. It has to probably, as far as I know, probably be brought through Karachi, Pakistan, then trucked in. So the end result is that electricity from the Tarakhil plant costs 42 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is stratospherically high; it would be high even in the northeast United States. Whereas power that is freely available from transmission lines from former Soviet republics—Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and so on—that electricity is available for 6 cents per kilowatt-hour. So 6 cents per kilowatt-hour as opposed to 42 cents per kilowatt-hour. The upshot is that Tarakhil is hardly ever used. It’s a brand new plant, it probably cost more than any other 105-megawatt, 100-megawatt plant ever built, at over $300 million, and it’s almost never used.

Steven Cherry: So it was, it came in way over budget, the electricity is hardly ever used, and it wasn’t even needed for Karzai’s reelection.

Glenn Zorpette: Right. There was, there was no need for this plant on any count.

Steven Cherry: You did come across some positive stories, I thought, you know, some of that infrastructure there goes back decades, and it seems like it’s held together mainly by string, chewing gum, and the ability to improvise through problems. Tell us about Fazal Ahmad and his crew.

Glenn Zorpette: Yes. Fazal Ahmad is the only degreed electrical engineer in all of southern Afghanistan working for the utility, which is called DABS [Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat]. And that’s obviously, that’s an acronym—I won’t, and it’s a sort of Pashtun thing I won’t try to pronounce—but he and the people who work for him have done an absolutely amazing job keeping this stuff that was installed, a lot of it by the Russians in the ’80s, and some of it even before that. Before what you had was the Americans were putting stuff in, then you had the Russians during the Russian period. Then there was a Taliban period when, believe it or not, the Taliban, some of the Afghan engineers actually tried to put in their own stuff. And they hired Chinese engineers too, I think. And then you had the NATO period after that. And a lot of the stuff that you see, especially in southern Afghanistan, dates to the Soviet period. So you see a lot of Bulgarian stuff, and a lot of that dating to the ’70s and ’80s time frame. I saw a 25-megavolt-ampere transformer at a substation in downtown Kandahar City that was so old and creaky that they actually have to hose it off on hot days to keep it from overheating,  because it’s so overtaxed and so old, and so, so desperately in need of refurbishment, or actually replacement. So you see a lot of that. You see amazingly resourceful stuff. You see people—you know, they don’t even have the equipment in many of the cases to make proper splices on lines. So you see splices made with just, you know, literally these, these lines twisted together and taped up, you know? Things that were just horrifying to, like, American engineers wandering around who just can’t believe some of the things they’re seeing, but somehow it’s all, continues to work.

Steven Cherry: On the American side, you also saw some, some, some pretty good engineering going on.

Glenn Zorpette: Yeah, the Army Corps of Engineers is kind of in, in a bit of a tough spot, because USAID has the lead on development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. But the Corps has a lot of expertise, obviously, in engineering and technical matters, which USAID does not have. But for reasons that escape me, USAID has been extremely reluctant to ask for help. I mean, it’s clear they don’t have engineers; they don’t have a whole lot of technical expertise, and yet, the attitude—I’ve talked to a number of engineers who’ve actually offered, you know, including people I knew, sources of mine from Iraq, who’ve offered, you know, look, we faced this stuff, we can help you. And they were rebuffed. They were told basically in these words, thanks, but no thanks. So you have the Corps of Engineers there, though, and they’ve been given, like, a sort of supporting role. They, they did this so-called bridging strategy in Kandahar City, where the strategy was to fix the Kajaki Dam, which is this immense dam in Helmand province, which, unfortunately, is in Taliban territory. So the plan initially was to fix Kajaki and bring the power to Kandahar City, which is 185 kilometers away, or something like that—to build out the transmission system, make a connection up to the north so even in the south they could access this hydropower from the former Soviet republics. This is that $1.2 billion grand plan. But everyone knows that’s 10 years away—or more. So the Corps of Engineers is brought in to do this bridging strategy, which was basically build large diesel generators flanking Kandahar City. You know, you might argue with that; again, you’re bringing in diesel power into a war zone—it’s fabulously expensive. But the Corps of Engineers, you know, they’re good soldiers: “Okay, we’ll do it.” And they had these, these diesel plants. Now, keep in mind, it took USAID—there’s a diesel plant they tried to do five years ago, they started trying to do five years ago, at the Shorandam Industrial Park, which was just coming online this past summer. So this was a five+ year project. They had lots of excuses, you know, well, it was, we—the stuff was damaged in a rocket attack and all this kind of stuff. Okay, fine, whatever. Still, it took them something like five years before it was done. The Corps of Engineers had two power plants up and running in about five months. From the time they wrote the contract to the time they were generating power, it was about five months.

Steven Cherry: USAID managed to actually create some new mistakes that, that weren’t even made in Iraq.

Glenn Zorpette: Well, one of those, probably the worst of those, was relying on one contractor. I mean, I saw a lot of things that gave me pause in Iraq, but I never saw this. Essentially, everything that USAID has been doing in Afghanistan in the electrical sector, going all the way back to the beginning in 2003, was done by this organization called the Joint Venture. And the Joint Venture was Black & Veatch and the Louis Berger Group—two large international contractors. Within the Joint Venture, Black & Veatch had most of the electrical stuff, and Berger tended to take the lead on other things like roads and things like that. So essentially, in terms of electricity and electrical construction in Afghanistan, it was Black & Veatch. And USAID had people cycling through Kabul who didn’t really understand electricity, or electrical contracting, or any of that, so Black & Veatch was calling the shots. They were running the show. I mean, I talked to some subcontractors who were involved on contracts and they said it was shocking to them to see Black & Veatch basically just telling USAID or these, these inexperienced USAID officials in Kabul what was going to happen, and why.

Steven Cherry: Your final take on the Afghanistan situation seems to involve regret more than anything else. What would you like our listeners to take away from this saga?

Glenn Zorpette: Well, I think that a horrible, horrible thing happened, because there was really a pretty unusual opportunity, I feel. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the NATO and the U.S. military were trying out a lot of, of theories in counterinsurgency. And there’s been a lot written and said about this, but basically, most people, you know, military strategists believe that counterinsurgency is going to be the main thing that the militaries of advanced countries do in the foreseeable future, because, I mean, a force-on-force conflict is seeming kind of unlikely—I mean, it’s unlikely we’re going to see, like, a full-on, you know, a Cold War–style nuclear conflict, I mean, let’s hope not. An effective counterinsurgency program needs to have some development components. So you show ordinary villagers and citizens that this new government that you’re helping to set up has their best interests at heart, is going to improve living for you, and so on. And there’s no better way to do that than with electricity. People see—they suddenly, they have lights. They have refrigerators, hopefully; they can power TVs and radios and watch the news. I mean, many, many, many good things come from electricity and development. But the coalition, first in Iraq, then especially in Afghanistan, has failed miserably, just utterly miserably, and it’s, it’s all the more poignant in Afghanistan because they had this experience in Iraq. And Afghanistan had very little power to begin with. So you’re starting with people who don’t have high expectations. So any sort of power that you gave them would have been a great boon. And as I said, there was some power now to the people around Kabul, which has been good, but for much of the other country, the hundreds of millions have bought nothing.

Steven Cherry: Glenn, I don’t know which is worse, wading into a war zone with a helmet and a flak jacket or wading into a thousand-page government report, but thank you for putting yourself in harm’s way, and boredom’s way, and coming back with the goods.

Glenn Zorpette: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette about the electrical grid side of the $55 billion effort to reconstruct, and just plain construct, a modern Afghanistan.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 11 October 2011.
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Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli