- By Sylvie SteinSylvie Stein is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
For the last nine years, the U.S. has funded a major hydropower plant in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Why? To boost economic growth and bolster electrical infrastructure, in the hope of generating support for President Karzai’s government among Taliban sympathizers. But the venture has one conspicuous flaw: the American-sponsored power plant intended to stymie the Taliban, as it turns out, sponsors the Taliban.
The U.S. has invested over $100 million in the Kajaki plant, which provides most of southern Afghanistan’s electricity; but this tactical outlay yields a particularly insidious benefaction to Taliban officials, who preside over many of the districts in the electrical grid (located in the Helmand province, a notorious breeding ground for insurgents).
The Taliban benefits from the hydropower plant in more ways than one: its commanders collect electricity bills from civilians, deprive revenue from Karzai-allied officials (they lose an estimated $4 million per year to Taliban officials), and channel irrigation for their opium poppy harvests. They also intercept the power lines running straight from the Kajaki plant and sell off the surplus themselves. To put it simply:
"The more electricity there is, the more the Taliban make," says Hajji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the governor of Helmand.
At least the inclusion of a more civilian-oriented battle in the counterinsurgency plan — for the hearts and minds of Afghans — seems potentially constructive. But the U.S. has implemented other initiatives that inadvertently support the Taliban, and those lack the same rationale:
A Congressional subcommittee last month issued a report on how protection payments by Department of Defense trucking contractors have become a "’significant potential source of funding for the Taliban."
That’s to say that U.S. contractors are actually paying the Taliban to withhold attacks on American convoys… a strategy that seems relatively on par with bribing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow down nuclear proliferation with a multi-million dollar check.
The paradoxical outcomes of U.S. strategies only highlight the likelihood that, as the war in Afghanistan grows increasingly complex, concession and compromise will become inevitable. But in Afghanistan, an insurgent needs only $200 per month to fight effectively, and the Kajaki power plant alone funnels millions (from the wallets of U.S. taxpayers) to the pockets of potential insurgents. In light of those disconcerting numbers, should the U.S. government at least reconsider their investment? If they do, they’ll need to act fast: they plan to launch a $400 million upgrade to the Kajaki plant in 2011.