Not Enough Electricity in Afghanistan and Iraq

An electricity pole in Kabul. Ahmad Masood / Landov

What happened in room 106 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Monday didn't attract much attention in Washington. Just about everybody following serious news in the nation's capital and around the world was focused on "the new Pentagon Papers" about the endless, thankless war in Afghanistan. As journalists, pundits, and politicians pored over the vast epistolary trove of tragedies posted on the Web by WikiLeaks, the latest hearings by the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan conjured up "about as much excitement as a talk on oral hygiene," said commission co-chairman Christopher Shays, a former Republican member of Congress from Connecticut.

Yet one witness on the late-afternoon panel appeared to be so frank, and indeed so zealous—"a bit of a missionary," in the words of the other co-chair, Michael Thibault—that he demanded attention. His name is Paul Hinks, and he's president of a company called Symbion Power. His business: building high-voltage transmission lines and power stations in the most difficult parts of Africa, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His mission: to make a fair profit and, without putting too fine a point on it, to try to create the foundations for modernity and a semblance of peace. By the end of the hearing Shays was gushing. "I loved your passion," he said. "I felt you'd go to the mat for what you believe, and it comes across."

Electricity is not a religion, of course, but it's a world changer. You want to transform the culture of the Afghan hinterland? Let little girls there watch TV. You want to keep the bad guys off the streets in Baghdad? It helps if their air conditioners work, so they want to stay in the cool of their homes. Winning hearts and minds in the modern world is not about generating gratitude; it's about getting people on the grid, even and especially when there is no grid, so they have the desire to change their lives and the ability to follow through.

That the United States has been unable to deliver this basic utility is a failure with truly far-reaching consequences—an early and enduring proof of superpower impotence. The expectations of the people in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, whatever other misgivings they may have had about the U.S.-led invasions of their countries, were that the Americans could at least get basic infrastructure up and running in short order. The United States had the technology, the know-how, the money. And in both countries there were huge needs.

Click to view a gallery about life after the Taliban. James Reeve

In Iraq most of the population was used to having electricity, clean water, good roads, but all that had withered away after decades of war and sanctions and then the orgy of looting that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Afghanistan, the vast majority had never known such advantages, and fewer than 10 percent had any access at all to electricity apart from what they could eke out of sputtering little generators burning expensive diesel or gasoline.

But more than seven years after American troops rolled into Baghdad, Iraq still doesn't have electricity 24 hours a day. Indeed, the average citizen is lucky to have six hours and often gets only four. In June, as temperatures soared over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, protests about electricity shortages erupted all over the country. Two people were killed by police in Basra, and, trying to defuse the political crisis, the caretaker government declared that the pampered international residents of the Green Zone would have to suffer along with everyone else.

In Kabul earlier this year, a power plant came online that Hinks's company helped build as a subcontractor. Its price tag was $305 million. Hinks told the commission it "should have cost $130 million." Part of the expenditure was on runaway security costs, even though it's right on the outskirts of the capital. But another big problem was wildly unrealistic goals set in 2007 as part of what many in Afghanistan saw as a U.S.-backed effort to win support for President Hamid Karzai in the August 2009 elections. The plant was supposed to be up and running by December 2008. (Some critics in Kabul called the power plant his "winter coat.") It did not actually open until May of this year.

Meanwhile, as the Associated Press reported in an exhaustive investigation published earlier this month, the Afghan capital now gets most of its electricity from Uzbekistan and other neighbors. When Kabul does run the U.S.-built plant, it has to burn diesel it imports from abroad. "I don't think it was sensible to build a diesel power plant in Kabul," Hinks told the commission. He said he couldn't understand why it doesn't use natural gas, which is available in Afghanistan. And still 90 percent of the country cannot access any central source of power.

Why has supplying this basic public utility proved so difficult? Hinks said he could not go into too many details about Kabul because his company is in the midst of contentious international arbitration with the prime contractor there. But having built transmission lines in some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq during the most dangerous years (from 2003 to 2007), he had a few key points he wanted to make. Though technical and administrative, what they came down to is the fundamental question of priorities. Washington never quite realized, or at least never firmly decided, that turning on the lights should be at the top of its list. And when the great military-industrial contracting machine did focus attention, in short spurts, it tended to throw money away on private security contractors and wildly expensive air transport of heavy machinery and even trailers to house personnel.

According to Hinks, the whole process got bogged down in a system of overpriced contracts with the U.S. government that generated huge amounts of money for the biggest contractors but relatively little electricity. These virtually open-ended "cost-plus" deals allow the contractors who get them to keep billing as costs rise, and to take a commission on what's paid, so the more they spend, the more they pocket. Poor performance is rewarded at government expense. "If the contractor makes mistakes, it does not lose anything as a consequence," said Hinks. "It is like giving your children whatever money they ask for. A cost-plus contractor will lose any appreciation for the value of money." In room 106 of the Dirksen building, Hinks told the commission—which is only too well aware of this pervasive approach to government contracting in war zones—that he thinks most deals should have firm fixed prices, which are the type he normally gets.

At the same time, he said, too little effort has been made to bring Iraqis and Afghans into the process of building, protecting, and running power networks. Security contractors are often hired as part of the cost-plus process, and they keep running up expenses to protect workers, equipment, and themselves against the locals. Hinks turned that process on its head in Iraq in order to get the job done. "In many cases we worked with tribal leaders who managed the work in their areas of influence," he said. "In some of the most volatile areas of the country, the local sheiks became Symbion's partners." People who worked on the project told me last year that Hinks had the towers built in Fallujah by a man well connected with local tribal leaders. Each agreed to support the erection of towers in his territory, getting paid for water, sand, and other construction materials. Their people got jobs, too. At the height of the project, 2,700 were employed. The lines got built, and they stayed up.

On the ground in Afghanistan, beleaguered provincial-reconstruction teams understand such concepts and have embraced the idea of micro-hydro projects: small generators locally made in Afghanistan and Pakistan that can be hooked up to primitive irrigation networks to provide villages with enough hydroelectric power to light them at night, power their TVs, and even run the sewing machines of local industries. The interest in this small-is-beautiful technology is great, as evinced by some of the the WikiLeaks documents and also by studies on how to put a bunch of these things in place in the very troubled, very strategic Nangarhar province between Kabul and the Khyber Pass. People want to protect an installation that helps to change their lives. There's no culture clash involved, no overt politics, and the Taliban doesn't offer anything so good.

But 160 micro-hydro generators installed so far in the entire country are hardly enough to turn Afghanistan around. What's needed is a concerted effort to bring light to both rural and urban populations. As the war intensifies, that is ever harder to do, and until there's more power and light for the people, showing them the value of peace and the possibilities for the future, the war is likely to continue to intensify.

In the months and years ahead, as the Obama administration continues trying to extricate U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, we'll probably see the same signs posted above the desks of U.S. officials in Baghdad and Kabul that we saw in the past in Saigon and Beirut. "Last one out please turn out the lights," they'll read. This time the message will have an added irony, since so few of the lights ever went on.