When U.S. Marines surged into southern Afghanistan in 2010, one of their top priorities was to secure a towering dam on the Helmand River so the U.S. Agency for International Development could begin a construction project to provide much-needed electricity to Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city.
Simply reaching the outskirts of the Kajaki Dam was perilous. More than 50 U.S. troops were killed in combat operations to evict the Taliban from areas along a 30-mile-road leading to the structure.
Now that Marines and Afghan soldiers have seized the dam and the surrounding areas, USAID has decided not to complete the most critical part of the $266-million project itself. Instead, the agency intends to hand over the challenging task of installing a large hydropower turbine to the Afghan government.
The dam is one of many reconstruction projects, once deemed essential, that are being scaled back rapidly and redesigned in the waning days of America’s long war in Afghanistan as troop reductions, declining budgets and public fatigue force a realignment of priorities. But USAID’s decision to walk away from the turbine installation — one of the most important and symbolic development efforts associated with President Obama’s troop surge — is drawing unique scrutiny.