How the Taliban Use AK-47s and Kidnappings to Keep the Poor in the Dark
On August 15, 2012, eight people were abducted at gunpoint by the Taliban while en route to their jobs in Waziristan, Pakistan. The driver was murdered, and the kidnappers set a ransom in excess of a million dollars per head for the safe return of the remaining seven. Tragedies like this are typical here, in a land that continues to be blighted by the Taliban’s reign — kidnappings, murder, and extortion are routine occurrences in the notoriously lawless tribal region. But those men had an unusually important job: operating a brand new dam that could provide power and water to one of the poorest, blacked-out corners of Pakistan.
The country is in the midst of an energy crisis. Vast swaths of the nation have no access to power in the first place, its grid is perpetually damaged and broken-down due to widespread violence, and even the richest areas face rolling blackouts and regular shortages. Over the summer, 40% of Pakistan was without power, and many areas could count on electricity just four hours a day. The entire utility system is a nightmarish mess; power providers often can’t operate because the dysfunctional government can’t or won’t pay them, electricity theft is rampant, and there’s great difficulty keeping the grid infrastructure in working order.
As such, creating reliable access to power is one of the top priorities for aid groups, NGOs, and government projects throughout the country — and the Taliban surely knows it.
They surely knew that USAID had supplied $40 million in funding to a new, sorely-needed dam in Waziristan, the Gomal Zam Dam. Work on the dam had been abandoned in 2004, when Taliban militants kidnapped two Chinese dam workers, and one was executed during the rescue mission. It had sat idle until USAID offered its infusion of funds. The project had just been completed in April 2011, when engineers began filling the lake with 1.14 million acre feet of water. Perhaps more importantly, it’s also outfitted with turbines capable of generating 17.4 megawatts — enough to power 17,000 American homes, and many more Waziristani homes — and will hold enough water to irrigate 163,000 acres of land.
Andrew Sisson, the USAID mission director, held a press conference at the time and expounded upon the benefits of the new dam. He offered up the typical talking points about how the dam would create jobs, spur economic growth, and “improve the lives of local people.”
The dam had barely been running for a year, however, when AK-47-wielding militants stopped the van containing its mechanical foreman, top engineer, a sub-engineer, two supervisors, a cook, driver, and two day laborers on a dusty road in Waziristan. All of them were, reportedly, swiftly hauled off to the militant group Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s mountain sanctuary.
Two weeks after the kidnapping, the Taliban released this video. The abducted dam workers plead for their lives and outline their kidnappers’ demands: 20 million rupees ($209,000) per head. One of the workers is shown to have been killed. There are conflicting reports as to who perished — some say that the driver was killed, others that it was the engineer; it may in fact have been both.
“We appeal to the Government of Pakistan and Wapda to fulfill the demands of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and arrange for our safe release as soon as possible,” the men are saying, according to a translation from a Pakistani newspaper.
A month later, and the crew is still missing. The dam workers’ families have taken to publicly protesting the Pakistani government’s inaction; they’re demanding that the authorities engage the Taliban in diplomatic talks to negotiate their return. But it seems as if their efforts are in vain: the loose association of tribal authorities and government representatives operating in the area appear to want nothing to do with the case — they’ve taken to deferring responsibility in addressing the crime through an endless maze of finger-pointing. It is unclear when, how, and if the authorities will act at all.
Work on the project has halted. Again. The dam sits idle, despite being almost fully functional, providing no power or water to the impoverished residents of South Waziristan. $40 million worth of jobs and improved lives are nowhere to be found.
Whether the Taliban strategically targeted the dam in part to keep locals locked in energy poverty or merely because they knew it was an expensive, high profile projet and therefore rife for ransom-seeking is hard to say. High-ransom kidnappings are on the rise throughout Pakistan, after all; they’re one of the Taliban’s most lucrative endeavors. There were over 100 such kidnappings in Karachi alone last year, and many targets bring in over $1 million each. And militants often target development projects as well, decrying foreign — especially American — aid and investment.
So the husk of a giant dam stands still again, baking under the mountain sun, dormant in one of the poorest, most violent regions on earth. It’s something of a monument for the moment; to the might of modern engineering and the depths of human decrepitude. In its shadow, it leaves tens of thousands of people with the mere promise of electricity or water with which to irrigate crops. It leaves six or seven men, locals who just wanted a solid job, to enter their third month of tortured captivity. It leaves us with yet another reminder in a long line of them that technology alone is just a fraction of the battle to modernize developing regions — getting expensive, power-generating tech built in someplace like Waziristan is just the beginning.