In many ways the Kajaki dam is a symbol of Afghanistan's troubled history. Built by the United States back in the 1950s, it fell into disrepair for lack of spare parts under the Taliban. Now the United States is trying to rebuild the 330-foot-high earth-filled hydroelectric facility as the centerpiece of a hearts-and-minds strategy in the strategic Helmand River valley. If repairs remain on schedule, the dam will become the country's largest power source—producing some 52 megawatts of electricity—by the middle of 2009.
Of course, it's not going to be that easy. Analysts expect a summer surge from Taliban insurgents, who are already stepping up their assaults on the dam and other reconstruction projects in the east and south of the country. According to a report by the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, nongovernmental aid agencies have suffered twice as many attacks during the first three months of this year as they did during the same period last year, leaving nine NGO workers dead and the same number wounded since January. The difficult-to-secure dam has been an especially enticing target. Insurgents control portions of the unpaved road leading from Helmand province's capital, Lashkar Gah, to the dam, forcing the Americans to airlift machinery and crews to the dam site in stark desert and mountain territory that resembles Arizona. A company of British paratroopers defends the facility by providing a three-mile wide security "bubble" on all sides.
Even so, Taliban forces sneak close enough to frequently shoot rockets, mortars, RPGs and small arms in the direction of the British base and the dam site. The insurgents approach the dam by filtering through several surrounding villages that grow a combination of opium poppies, wheat and corn, while at the same time warning local men not to work at the dam under penalty of death. "This [security perimeter] is a small area of goodness in a sea of unsavoriness," says British Maj. Mike Shervington, who commands D Company, 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment, the dam's main security force.
Shervington doubts that the local road—made dangerous by Taliban checkpoints and roadside bombs—can be sufficiently secured to allow a third turbine to be trucked in from Kabul within the next six months. "The enemy uses IEDs to deny us the ability to protect and bring development to the people," says Shervington. U.S. officials are optimistic that once the dam's three power plants come online and the level of the emerald-green reservoir behind the dam is raised another 40 feet through the installation of new gates, the surge of electricity and irrigation will help win residents over to the government's side. But Shervington knows he's in for a tough fight. "We are anticipating a very busy summer," he says.
While he prepares for a hard season, some senior U.S. officials are questioning the Taliban's ability to keep up the pace of its attacks. Last year was the most violent in Afghanistan since the Taliban was overthrown in late 2001, with the United Nations estimating that some 8,000 Afghans died—mostly insurgents, but also at least 1,500 civilians. Richard Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia affairs recently downplayed the Taliban's challenge. "The Taliban threats of a winter wave seem to have gone the way of last year's spring offensive," he told an Islamabad press conference earlier this month. "It never happened."
The Taliban, for its part, claims that its shift from large-scale engagements to smaller hit-and-run operations is less a sign of weakness than a change in strategy to counter heavy casualties incurred last year. A senior Taliban commander in southeast Ghazni province, who requested anonymity for security reasons but who has provided NEWSWEEK with reliable information in the past, says provincial insurgent forces may have lost up to 50 percent of their deputy commanders in 2007. The U.S. military believes it captured or killed some 100 midlevel Taliban commanders last year, as well as several senior leaders, in the east and south. As a result, says the Ghazni commander, Taliban leaders have ordered their lieutenants to limit insurgent operations to units of five to eight men to minimize casualties. Local commanders and subcommanders have been told not to meet in face-to-face strategy sessions in groups larger than two in case they are targeted by precision air strike. The Ghazni leader adds that commanders and fighters who had become dangerously negligent in using cell and satellite phones have been ordered to rely on harder-to-trace communication methods, such as couriers.
According to the leader, the Taliban are also planning to increase the number of suicide bombings, particularly vehicle bombs, as well as the planting of roadside IEDs and small-unit ambushes of Afghan and coalition supply lines. A record 150 suicide attacks took place in Afghanistan in 2007, and the Taliban official claims that there is a six-month waiting list to be trained as a suicide bomber (known to the Taliban as "wrestlers.") Twenty-four Afghans who were recently trained by Al Qaeda experts in the techniques of fashioning explosive-and-ball-bearing-laden suicide vests, and of wiring large-scale vehicle bombs, have recently infiltrated into Afghanistan from the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan, the commander says. Operations involving vehicle bombings may be "15 times" more expensive than those using an individual on foot wearing a suicide vest, he says, but they are more deadly and effective. He pointed to an early March suicide attack on an American and Afghan National Army post in Khost province's Sabari district in which an explosive-packed construction truck rammed into the base, killing two U.S. soldiers. According to the commander and a recent video released by the Jalaluddin Haqqani insurgent group, which is allied with the Taliban, the truck's driver was a young German of Turkish origin who had also been trained in Pakistan's tribal area. The Ghazni commander says the Taliban prefers to steal vehicles used in car bombs, not to save money but because they are more difficult to trace.
Indeed, Taliban commanders boast that between suitcases of cash sent to them by jihadi supporters in the Gulf and the millions they received in ransom for foreigners they kidnapped last year, funding has become less of a problem for their operations. And while they lack the firepower to go head to head with the coalition's military, their hit-and-run operations are taking a lethal toll. In recent days several Taliban commandos killed 11 policemen sleeping in their Kandahar outpost and a suicide bomber killed 23 people, including two senior policemen, in remote Nimruz province. In other attacks IEDs have killed six coalition soldiers, including the son of the new Dutch armed forces commander. Their deaths brought the number of coalition troops killed so far this year to 44. The small-scale fighting in Afghanistan may not make for big headlines, but its ability to disrupt projects like the dam is potent—and deadly.