Taliban fighters are encroaching on Kajaki district in Helmand, threatening a prestige aid project built to power southern and holding huge symbolic importance for the international coalition.
Local officials say foreign engineers working at the hydroelectric power Kajaki dam, including a number of Britons, have been evacuated to Kandahar, as Taliban have captured at least one police precinct from government forces.
The US military conducted three airstrikes in Kajaki on 15 and 16 September, “to eliminate threats to the force”, according to Col Brian Tribus, spokesman for the international forces in Afghanistan. He said Nato personnel were operating out of the Bastion and Leatherneck complex to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan troops.
“Other than that the Afghan security forces have full responsibility for security, and for planning and leading their own operations,” Tribus said.
Kajaki, which claimed the lives of more than a dozen British soldiers, has been heavily contested since the early days of the war and was the subject of a about a unit of British paratroopers stranded in a minefield.
Having been part of US aid ambitions for over half a century, the dam became a centrepiece of the British army’s attempts to win “hearts and minds” in southern Afghanistan, the spiritual home of the Taliban.
In 2008, 2,000 British troops hauled a 220-tonne generator across the Helmand desert. The five-day effort was touted as one of the most heroic British army operations since the second world war.
However, years later the hydroelectric turbine remains unassembled. The volatile security situation has made it impossible to deliver the 700 tonnes of cement required to install it.
The Afghan national army’s 215th Maiwand Corps is planning to send reinforcements to Kajaki, according to Mohammad Jan Rasoulyar, Helmand’s deputy governor. Neither he nor the army would specify numbers.
As a result of the fighting, power and phones lines across the province, including its capital, Lashkar Gah, have been interrupted for the past week.
Taliban forces had also managed to cut off supply routes to the district centre, said Haji Shahabuddin, head of Kajaki’s social council. He said the siege had caused food prices to soar, with a bag of flour now costing 5,000 Pakistani rupees (£30), and that the Taliban were threatening locals not to supply the security forces with food.
Saeed Rasoul, head of power supply in the south-west, said about 25 engineers had been flown to Kandahar and were waiting to return to the dam once the security situation improved.
Route 611 to Kajaki runs through the opium country of Sangin, the heart of the Taliban insurgency in Helmand. Kajaki also neighbours Musa Qala district, highly valued by British troops, which earlier this month to the Taliban.
For years, Kajaki has been perpetually vulnerable to insurgent attacks. In April, the state power firm that the Taliban controlled one-third of the electricity from the Kajaki plant, and were taxing residents for it.
One of the most , the Kajaki dam was initially built with American funds in 1950s as a prestige project to showcase modernisation of the developing world. Today, it stands as a monument of failure in a country colloquially known as the graveyard of empires.
The double purpose of the power plant is to irrigate farmland and power the southern region, chiefly the city of Kandahar. In the 1970s, USAid mounted two turbines, but the Soviet invasion in 1979 thwarted plans to install a third, which has since become known as the “ghost bay”. In its first two decades, the project to power Helmand devoured 20% of Afghanistan’s national budget, in addition to vast sums of American aid money.
Plans to install the third turbine in Kajaki were resumed in 2001, but violence impeded the efforts from the beginning. The original estimated cost of installing the turbine was just under $17m (£11m), with planned completion in 2005.
Even as American forces pulled out of Afghanistan, USAid pledged $75m, swelling the cost for all six components of the so-called Kandahar Helmand Power Program to $345m. That is $32m more than what the aid agency said could be spent before the program became unviable, (Sigar).
With dwindling international aid, the power supply to the south has become even more insecure. Kandahar is also meant to receive electricity from a power plant in the Shorandam Industrial Park, a $7.8m (£5m) a flagship programme of international aid in southern Afghanistan.
However, according to Sigar, there are no plans in place to secure electricity for thousands of factories and homes when the US Department of Defence realises its plans to cut funding for diesel this month.
In an April letter to Congress, Sigar said: “We are unconvinced that there are plans in place to ensure there is a reliable and sustainable power source for this strategically important city.”