In the heart of territory under siege from the Taliban, one of Afghanistan’s most important hydroelectric dams is at the centre of a power struggle that symbolises the battle between the government and insurgents.
Kajaki Dam, which provides power to more than three million people in the south — including the cities of Kandahar and Lashkar Gah — is controlled by government forces. But an extraordinary compromise sees authorities effectively allow the insurgents surrounding it to charge locals for energy.
This kind of compromise could become more common as US forces withdraw, leaving local government officials and Taliban commanders to find ways to grudgingly live with the status quo even as their leaders fail to agree on terms.
“It is not our choice. How can we refuse them electricity?” said Ghulam Raza, an executive of Turkish firm 77 Construction, which is working to triple the capacity of the dam.
Officials at the plant told AFP during a recent visit that about a fifth of the output was used by the Taliban-controlled districts of Kajaki, Sangin and Musa Qala.
The areas contain hundreds of hamlets and villages that are home to thousands of people.
The insurgents collect taxes each month from locals for the electricity they consume, said Abdul Razak, nominally the governor of Kajaki district but whose authority barely extends beyond his office and a few buildings surrounding the dam.
This tacit agreement doesn’t stop the Taliban from constantly attacking the troops protecting the dam, and civilians stuck in the middle pay a heavy price.
“This electricity costs too many lives,” the governor told AFP.
– River’s course follows history –
Situated between rocky cliffs flanking the Helmand River — the irrigation lifeline of southern Afghanistan as it snakes a course across over 1,000 kilometres (800 miles) — Kajaki Dam was built in the 1950s and its history has closely followed that of the country.
As the US continues to withdraw its forces after 20 years of conflict, the security in areas surrounding the dam serves as a harbinger of what might lie ahead.
The dam was built by an American company to control water flow for farmers, then upgraded in 1975 by the US aid agency before being abandoned four years later when Soviet tanks rolled in the start of an occupation that lasted nearly a decade.
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, as Washington spent millions to win hearts and minds, foreign engineers attempted to finish the job and install a third turbine, but they too gave up.
The Afghan government then engaged 77 Construction — which has since installed the third turbine and is expecting to complete a second plant next year.
– Playing both sides –
The difficulties of carrying out any development project in such rugged terrain while surrounded by a hostile force are obvious.
“We are totally dependent on helicopters,” Turkish executive Adel Kiayani told AFP.
“We cannot even bring in a tomato without them.”
Still, hundreds of tons of construction materials and equipment must be trucked in, and the dam’s local employees — drawn mostly from areas the Taliban control — require two permits.
“I have a piece of paper from the Taliban and a government ID card,” said worker Mohammad Akbar.
Mohammad Daud, a mechanic, also regularly crosses the frontline — a journey that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
“It used to take ten minutes, but because of the insecurity it now lasts four hours,” he said. “I’m very scared.”
Another worker, Sardar Mohammad, says he tells both sides in advance when he needs to cross the frontline, but this is not always enough.
“They fired from that outpost,” he said, describing how a colleague was killed by Afghan government gunfire from a nearby hill.
– Frontline village –
Officials from the Turkish construction company know they have it better than the troops guarding them.
“The Taliban… like 77 and the projects because they benefit all the people,” said Adel Badloon, a logistics officer.
The likelihood of the developers abandoning the site should the Taliban capture the dam might explain why the insurgents don’t make a greater effort.
But they give no respite to the security forces, who have to move on foot from the dam complex to more remote outposts.
“If you go 10 metres (30 feet) from the path, they will shoot you,” army commander Dost Nazar Andarabi warned.
In one outpost, perched on a hillock, soldiers offer a telescope to look over Taliban-controlled territory.
Over there, children play football and farmers work their fields. Everything looks peaceful — until after dark when the shooting starts.
Anyone who ventures into an open area near the frontline is at risk of being hit.
At another post, Afghan Public Protection Force commander Abdul Razeq points to the spot where two months earlier he said his brother-in-law was killed by snipers.
– ‘When a child is sick, they die’ –
Between the dam and the frontline lies Tange, a market village largely destroyed by the fighting and now mostly abandoned.
In the rubble of the clay buildings, a heavy silence hangs. No more than thirty families remain, and only a handful of stores are operating — including a bakery that supplies the armed forces.
But flour can only get in via helicopter, and many basics, such as cooking oil and rice, are lacking.
“Sometimes we don’t eat for two or three days,” said villager Kamal, a former police officer wounded in combat.
“When a child is sick, they die, because we have no medicine or a doctor.”
“We continue to hope that the situation will improve but it is getting worse and worse”, says Agha Lala, the baker.