Tag: USA

Kajaki and Power Politics

Like the ancient Greco-Buddhist colossi of Bamiyan, the High-Modernist era Kajaki dam is a product of foreign influences and has been a mute witness as well as an occasional victim of domestic political disarray and failed attempts to integrate and incorporate Afghanistan into contending spheres of influence. Each alternate modern (i.e., capitalist, communist, islamist, praetorian) or anti-traditional/utopian fundamentalist (i.e., Deobandi) ideology has attempted to inscribe the future of Afghanistan on this palimpsest.

The dam was built from 1946 to 1953 as part of what became known as the Helmand Valley Authority (HVA) project in Afghanistan.  It was funded initially by King Zahir Shah and later, as funds ran low, from loans by the United States (Washington Post 8/7/2011). The vast project was obviously modeled on the  Great Depression era Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) project. The belief in the High Modernist era of development planning was that massive infrastructural investment was the key to setting off a virtuous circle of self-reinforcing economic growth. Although that model of development is highly discredited today for environmental and political as well as practical reasons, the dam, irrigation canals, and highways associated with the project did eventually help to transform the landscape into a fertile valley. By the mid-seventies, the dam had two Westinghouse 16.5 MW turbines to generate electricity for the entire valley. This project was for its time, one of the most expensive US foreign assistance projects in history.

With the Saur Revolution, insurrection, Soviet invasion, and civil war the dam naturally fell into a brief period of disrepair. The occupying Soviet forces prioritized linking Kabul directly to the Soviet power grid. However, they also built gas turbines and diesel generators in several other Afghan cities and towns. Czechoslovakia was given the task of restoring the dam and they provided much of the equipment to “modernize” the Kajaki dam and increase its irrigation capacity. By 1982, the dam’s power lines were restored and power flowed once again to Alexander’s city, Kandahar, in the neighboring province. Not surprisingly, the dam soon attracted several Mujahedeen attacks on Soviet and PDPA soldiers guarding the site. With the Soviet withdrawal and the warlord period, the dam and associated infrastructure again fell into disrepair.

By the late nineties as order returned across much of Afghanistan, the Taliban expressed hopes that their increasingly warm friendship with the US (which seemed all too willing to overlook Taliban abuses toward women and minorities at the time) would mean that Americans would return to Helmand to once again fix the dam’s power generating units and particularly the silted irrigation canals (Philadelphia Inquirer 1/19/1997). The irrigation canals associated with the HVA were now vital to the production of the world’s largest supply of opium and Afghanistan’s main export, even though the Taliban had officially announced plans to stamp out the crop.

When US assistance for the dam did not materialize a few years later, the Taliban turned to Pakistan and China for assistance.  The Pakistanis, who increasingly saw Afghanistan as a colony or at least a “gateway to Central Asia” after the Soviet withdrawal and collapse, were committed to restoring electricity and promoting a modicum of stability and development in order to consolidate the gains of their Taliban client regime. Under the Lahore Agreement, Pakistan planned to build a high voltage transmission line to connect the Afghan city of Jalalabad directly to Pakistan’s own electricity grid. In Helmand, the Pakistanis proposed to build new sluice gates to increase the power generation and irrigation capacity of the dam.  These plans obviously came to a screeching halt in September 2001.

During the initial US invasion of Afghanistan, the dam’s power station was deliberately targeted by American forces (Guardian 12/20/2001).  Once the US occupied Afghanistan, the teams switched sides and the dam became the target of the Taliban while the US played defense.  In 2003, a force of sixty Taliban were captured after firing three rockets at the dam — all of which missed the target (Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/3/2003).

In 2006, the US gave $1.4 billion to two private contractors to increase the amount of power generated by the Kajaki dam by adding a third turbine and also repairing a large power plant in Kabul.  Adding the third turbine to the dam entailed a famous 2008 mission, Operation Kryptonite, in which 3,000 British troops protected 100 vehicle convoy as it hauled a gigantic turbine across a 180 km of insurgent dominated areas. Apparently between 15 to 200 insurgents were killed (depending on which account one believes) during this Hollywood style “Wild West” stagecoach mission.

The mission “succeeded” in reaching the forward operating base but repairs and installation of the new turbine was painstakingly slow – the third turbine has never been unpacked. Repairs to the dam were supposed to be finished by 2008. By mid 2009 auditors were complaining that the two plants (Kajaki and Kabul) combined were only generating 12MW instead of the originally contracted 140MW (USA Today 11/11/2009). Plans for adding the third turbine were deferred indefinitely after a Chinese subcontractor abandoned the site. US taxpayers have since paid a $1 million per month to guard the dam while the program was suspended to look for another subcontractor and to make the road to the dam “secure.”

In the interim, US and ISAF forces performed annual surges to tame the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.  An inattentive and uncritical American and European public was repeatedly told by blatant propaganda that this time the province had finally been secured, only to witness a repeated need for a surge of troops and bribes the next year. Despite these surges, ISAF soldiers soldiers openly admit that their influence does not extend beyond 500 meters of their security bases (see Daily Mail 10/8/2011).

The electricity grid once again became a priority issue for American generals during a surge in the neighboring province of Kandahar in 2010, when the generals realized that restoring electric power was critical to winning over the civilian population and defeating the Taliban. They took $106 million dollars in discretionary funding to pay for new generators and all the diesel fuel necessary to power the grid for four years (Globe and Mail, 7/11/11). No provisions were made for the Afghan government to restock the fuel after four years and the government lacked the staff to monitor or repair the system.

Finally, having failed to stabilize the province, much less fix the electricity supply, ISAF forces have simply declared victory and they have begun to hand over responsibility to ill trained Afghan Security Forces in preparation for a withdrawal in 2014.

In November 2011, it was reported that water levels in the reservoir had dropped by 20 meters over several months endangering the ability of the dam to generate any electricity if another 5 meters were lost (Shamsad TV, 11/23/2011).  The electricity generation which had reached 20MW was now back down to 12MW. The drop in water also threatened the agricultural capacity of the valley which was already threatened by drought.

This week (12/13/2011) with a 50% cut to the USAID budget, the US is considering permanently deferring the installation of the third turbine and instead calling it a day after simply refurbishing the existing two turbines, power lines, and substations.  What was once seen as essential to winning hearts and minds is now on the chopping block of a cost-benefit analysis.

Thus, the dam remains a symbol of false promises and failed efforts to reorient decisively Afghanistan’s future. But even if the dam were made operational, it would still remain problematic. Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development. The broader failings of an unsustainable infrastructure-led development model were never unpacked and thought through. The dam represents a desperate hope that there is a short cut to development, prosperity, and peace.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]

The Indo-Pacific

The term “Indo-Pacific” has been used since the mid-seventies, mainly to refer to a biological ecosystem. In the last few years, however, “Indo-Pacific” has come to describe a set of interrelated maritime security challenges from the East China Sea to the Arabian Sea — particularly as India’s Navy makes forays into the South China Sea and China seeks to protect its supply routes through the Indian Ocean. But the geopolitics brought into focus by this “45 degree tilt” of the map is not restricted to India and China; it also includes the US, Australia, Japan, and the rising powers of Southeast Asia.  As with the notion of “AfPak” that shaped the last decade, India is not the architect of this new cartography that displaces the notion of South Asia as a unified strategic space inherited from the British Raj, but India need not necessarily object to this new imagining.

So who is shaping this relatively new conceptualization? The origins of this new focus apparently date back to a 2009 speech by Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd at the Asia Foundation in San Francisco.  (He may have been influenced in part by the recent writing of Robert Kaplan). Rudd argued that in the future, the Indian Ocean would become as central to maritime security thinking and defense planning for powers like the US and Australia as the Pacific is currently.  Essentially, Rudd advocated replacing the notion of  the “Asia-Pacific” theater, which is partly a legacy of WWII and Cold War era strategic thinking, with the concept of “Indo-Pacific” as an integrated theater of operation to focus on emerging security challenges. The new conceptualization anticipates the rise of India as a major naval power — an idea which is sure to flatter New Delhi — and as another counterweight to China.

Rudd’s articulation was also an attempt to persuade the Americans to prioritize long term engagement with Asia (Weekend Australian, 17 September 2011). With no major maritime security threats in the Atlantic, and serious challenges from the Horn of Africa to the Korean peninsula, it is not surprising that the US would agree with Australia’s framing and seek greater engagement with the Indo-Pacific region — a framework which has the added benefits of not being wedded to any existing regional organization and of pivoting at the strategic choke points which are the domain of strong American allies: Singapore and Australia. Hence President Obama’s announcement a couple weeks ago that the US had agreed to deploy 2,500 marines to Darwin, Australia, just south of the Timor Sea. A move that the NY Times called “The first long term expansion of America’s military presence in the Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War.”

A cartographic reorientation on this scale is not something which can be achieved by fiat. It will require regional powers to embrace and integrate this new framing of the map. Indian security elites, for example, have only recently begun to think strategically from an “upside down” map or an “ant hill” perspective of South Asia. The reflexive desire is to prioritize immediate and long-standing security challenges over emerging challenges. And these reflexes may not be ill placed for countries like India and China which have long unsettled borders and a history of conflict (as well as cooperation). Moreover, an overemphasis on the potential for conflict in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea ignores the ways in which Chinese infrastructural investment in Pakistan may help China to circumvent the long sea route for a portion of its imports and exports — although China will still have an interest in new sources of energy off its coast.  There is also the risk of overplaying the growing strength of China while ignoring the ways in which it is also becoming more vulnerable.

Even though India did not invent this new conceptual map, it need not view it in a hostile light. India’s maritime priority will always rest in Indian Ocean, but its ships will increasingly need to move freely outside the Indian Ocean to maintain India’s access to resources and markets. As such, India will benefit from a stable and uniform order that extends well beyond the Straits of Malacca. An Anglophone dominated order in the Indo-Pacific may be more comfortable for India given its regime type, distrust of China, and growing ties with the US and Australia. Expanding ties with other rising powers in the Indo-Pacific that share some of India’s concerns about China is also prudent since America cannot be relied upon to retain its attention in the region over the long term.

[Cross-posted from Humanyun]

The Infected Zone

UK Movie Poster for “Monsters” (2010). Source: Wikipedia.

The post-9/11 generation sci-fi film “Monsters” (Gareth Edwards, 2010) is a kind of “Cloverfield” for the US-Mexican border (or if you’re a real film buff, it is a “Sin Nombre” journey film with real aliens, i.e. gigantic extra-terrestials). But this is more than just a monster flick.

The film takes the notion of a militarized zone and an alien invasion along the US-Mexican border quite literally, but it is set six years after the invasion or infestation. Thus, Mexico is transformed into a late-Occupied Iraq or Afghanistan and Texas into a kind of post-Katrina wasteland. The militarization of the landscape is eerily too familiar. In fact, the power and realism of the film stems from the idea that people acclimate to militarization; horror becomes mostly mundane. At one point, the American protagonists ask a Mexican driver why he and his family live so close to a dangerous area, the response is simply that they have nowhere else to go and they think they can manage the risks.

Throughout the film the cable news networks show scenes of alien attacks and carnage in the background, but the characters generally ignore the flickering media images. The ubiquitous sight of fighter jets and hovering attack helicopters fail to phase the characters or even anyone in the background. It is a world that has overcome the shock of the spectacle of war. The photojournalist protagonist spends much of the film trying to find images which could actually shock a desensitized American audience.

The setting is also noteworthy as a commentary on US-Mexican relations, which is seen as both cooperative and unequal. Both governments attempt to police an infected zone, but it is telling that the infected zone covers most of northern Mexico. For its part, the US builds an immense border wall to keep out the aliens, but the border is porous despite the monumental expenditure and effort. The sight of America’s front door as a forbidding wall is a view of America from the “outside in.”  The Mexican characters in the film see America as a country that has “imprisoned itself” through fear and misunderstanding. While the American side is called the evacuation zone, it is nonetheless also a blighted wasteland, marked mainly by fighter jets speeding to and from the infected zone to drop chemical weapons and reload. This is an image of “Fortress America” which tries to use Mexico as a buffer zone even as its own interior continues to decay.

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