In 2007, the United States built a $305 million diesel power plant in Afghanistan
– the world’s most expensive power plant of its kind. Yet the facility is rarely used, because the impoverished country cannot afford to operate it.
This ill-fated power plant does not represent the only time America has lavished tremendous amounts of money on development projects in Afghanistan that have failed to meet objectives. At a December 7 presentation
organized by the Wilson Center’s Asia Program
and co-sponsored with the Middle East Program
and International Security Studies
, Rajiv Chandrasekaran
discussed Washington’s expensive attempts to modernize southern Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley from the 1940s to 1970s – and the troubling implications for U.S. development projects in that country today.
From Morrison Knudsen to USAID
According to Chandrasekaran, a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar and Washington Post journalist, the story begins after World War II, when Afghanistan’s development-minded king, Zahir Shah, vowed to modernize his country. He hired Morrison Knudsen – an American firm that had built the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge – to construct irrigation canals and a large dam on the Helmand River. Shah’s view was that by making use of the Hindu Kush’s great waters, prosperity would emerge and turn a dry valley into fertile ground.
Unfortunately, problems arose from the start. The region’s soil was not only shallow, but also situated on a thick layer of subsoil that prevented sufficient drainage. When the soil was irrigated, water pooled at the surface and salt accumulated heavily. Yet despite these challenges, King Shah was determined to continue the massive enterprise. And so, increasingly, was the U.S. government – particularly when Washington began to fear that if it did not support this project, the Soviets would.
In 1949, the United States provided the first installment of what would amount to more than $80 million over a 15-year period. With this aid in hand, Morrison Knudsen not only completed the canals and dam but also constructed a new modern community. Americans called the town Lashkar Gah, but Afghans christened it “Little America.” It boasted a movie theater, a co-ed swimming pool, and a tennis court. Children listened to Elvis Presley records, drank lemonade, and learned English at Afghanistan’s only co-ed school.
However, problems continued to proliferate. Afghans in Lashkar Gah – many of whom had been lured away from their ancestral homelands on the promises of better harvests – did not experience greater farm yields. In the 1960s, the Afghans severed their contract with Morrison Knudsen, and began working directly with U.S. government agencies, including the new U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The result was some fairly productive farms, but, due in great part to waterlogging and soil salinity, the objective of transforming the region into Afghanistan’s breadbasket was not attained. U.S. funding slowed in the 1970s, and the grand experiment officially ended in 1978, when all Americans pulled out of Lashkar Gah following a coup staged by Afghanistan’s Communist Party.
“We Need To Find a Middle Ground”
What implications does all this have for U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan today? Chandrasekaran offered several lessons for American policymakers. One is “beware the suit-wearing modern Afghan” who claims to speak for his less-development-inclined countrymen. Another is to be aware that “there is only so much money that the land can absorb.” Finally, it is unrealistic to expect patterns of behavior to change quickly; he noted how Afghans in Lashkar Gah continued to flood their fields even when advised not to do so.
These lessons are not being heeded today, according to Chandrasekaran. He cited a USAID agricultural project, launched in late 2009, that allocated a whopping $300 million to just two provinces annually, with $30 million spent over only a few months. He said that while this effort may have generated some employment, the immense amounts of money at play fueled tensions among Afghans. Furthermore, contended Chandrasekaran, the program “focused too much on instant gratification and not on building an agricultural economy.”
In conclusion, Chandrasekaran insisted that foreign aid is essential in Afghanistan (and at the recently concluded Bonn Conference, Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed, calling for financial assistance to continue until 2030). He described past aid efforts as either “starving the patient” or “pumping food into him.” We need to find a middle ground, he argued, and said that working on more modest projects with small Afghan nongovernment organizations is one possibility. The problem, he acknowledged, is that Washington is under pressure to spend ample quantities of money, and therefore depends on large implementing partners – no matter the unsatisfactory results.
Michael Kugelman is program associate with the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.