Petraeus is already making improvements in Afghanistan, but they won't matter if Karzai doesn't reform.

Military analysis.
July 14 2010 7:26 PM

Good News and Bad News From Afghanistan

Petraeus is already making improvements, but they won't matter if Karzai doesn't reform.

Afghanistan Taliban. Click image to expand.
Taliban fighters

Two news stories about Afghanistan sum up what might be about to go well in that war—and what's definitely going badly.

The good news, reported Wednesday by the Washington Post, is that Gen. David Petraeus, barely two weeks into his new position as U.S. commander, has convinced Afghan President Hamid Karzai to let him create local forces throughout the country as a bulwark against the Taliban. This is a big deal, bigger than it may seem at first glance.

The bad news, as suggested by a July 13 story in the Wall Street Journal, is that the U.S. approach to providing essential services to the Afghan people—a central feature of the Obama administration's counterinsurgency strategy—seems to be completely wrongheaded.

Let's do the bad news first.

According to the Journal story, by Yaroslav Trofimov, a huge development project on which the United States has spent more than $100 million—the repair and upgrading of the enormous Kajaki hydropower plant in southern Afghanistan—is backfiring.

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The project has doubled the plant's electrical output, much of it to Helmand province, where U.S. forces are now engaged in a protracted fight with Taliban insurgents. The idea is that improving the Afghan people's lives (something that a more reliable flow of electricity would do) might rally them to support the Afghan government (on whose behalf we've made this investment) and steer them away from the Taliban (who, the people would see, can't give them what they need).

The problem is that the Taliban control vast swaths of the province, including much of the power grid. So they collect the monthly electricity bills—going door to door to do so—and use the money to fund the war against us.

And because the Taliban are out there collecting the bills (and sometimes siphoning off the power and redirecting the lines away to more cooperative households), they get the credit for the electricity, too.

Or, as the Journal's headline put it: "U.S. Rebuilds Power Plant, Taliban Reap a Windfall."

There's more than cruel irony going on here. The Kajaki project's unintended consequences reflect an endemic weakness in the U.S. approach to supplying the Afghan people with "essential services"—or, actually, two weaknesses.

The first weakness is the tendency, by U.S. aid agencies working in Third World countries generally, to view "development" as involving big projects. This view may be inappropriate for countries plagued with active insurgencies. The insurgents can siphon off the power for their own purposes; because the source of power is remote, the local people don't see it as their own and so don't (and, in fact, can't) defend it. If there are blackouts (perhaps due to insurgent tampering), the government gets blamed.

U.S. civilian and military officials have been arguing over this issue for months, the Journal reports. The commanders say that small, diesel-fueled generators would do the job more effectively. The civilians note that electricity from big power plants, like the one at Kajaki, is much cheaper—3 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 45 cents for power from diesel generators.

This argument is reminiscent of the old joke about the drunk who drops his keys in the gutter but looks for them under the street lamp because that's where the light is. It's easier to search there, but that's not where the keys are. The big power plants are cheaper, but that's not how to thwart the Taliban or to build popular loyalty to the Afghan government.