The United States has spent more than $800 billion on the never ending war in Afghanistan, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The bulk of that money was spent fighting the Taliban, but billions have also gone toward rebuilding the country and investing in its infrastructure. A lot of those projects haven't gone well, and a $60 million power system in northeast Afghanistan that doesn't provide any power is just the latest example.
According to a new report from John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) mismanaged the project so badly that its powerstation isn’t connected to a power source, hasn’t been tested, and “may be structurally unsound and pose a risk to Afghans who live near transmission towers and lines,” or who work at the station.
Like so many projects in Afghanistan, the North East Power System looked great on paper. The project was supposed to expand the country’s power grid and provide electricity to more than one million Afghans. Instead, it’s unused and untested.
The North East Power System has many problems. The USACE contracted out its construction to an Afghan company that proceeded to build the station and 182 towers to connect it to homes and substations, but, according to the report, “USACE initiated … construction before the Afghan government acquired privately held land along the transmission line route.” Living close to power line towers isn’t safe, and in some cases, people are living and farming directly under the powerlines.
Sixty-eight percent of the land used to build the 182 towers is private property. “According to USACE officials, until all buildings, houses, and other structures along the…transmission
line route have been removed, USACE will not energize [the power station] because of safety issues.” That’s if the station will even work when it’s turned on.
USACE’s original plan was to connect regional substations at Charikar and Nejrab via a new substation in Gulbahar, but the USACE didn’t tell either of the substations or the people building the towers. According to the report, the Afghan construction company used a temporary connection to patch into the Charikar power plant, but no one has turned on the juice. That’s for the best, because workers at the power plant told SIGAR that “if the transmission line was energized… the temporary connection could damage the Charikar substation’s equipment and create a safety hazard for Afghans living along the transmission line route.”
That’s if it even works—he system’s never been tested for problems and there’s reason to believe it might not. SIGAR inspected several of the power line towers and discovered a host of construction problems. Some of the towers rest on loose soil that could give at any minute. The concrete foundation of some of the towers are already deteriorating, “leaving [SIGAR] to … question the strength of the underlying foundations and their ability to prevent the towers
Even basic safety precautions weren’t followed, the report says. There’s no fire doors on the substation and a room full of 136 backup batteries that “pose the risk of explosion without a proper ventilation system to maintain the required room temperature,” according to SIGAR. “These batteries emit hydrogen gas even when they are not being used to power equipment.”
As the war in Afghanistan grinds through its second decade and and its third American presidency, the total cost of reconstruction will rise and the amount the US has wasted on half-assed projects will grow. It will be decades before we have a full accounting of what America has wasted in Afghanistan.