From today's Toronto Star:
"Security stand-off stalls Canadian dam project in Kandahar"
KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—A Canadian drive to transform Kandahar’s water supply is sputtering toward disaster despite Ottawa’s assurances to the contrary, the Toronto Star has learned.
The $50-million Dahla Dam irrigation project, touted as Canada’s best chance for a lasting legacy in Afghanistan, has all but stalled as its lead contractor, a partnership involving the Canadian engineering giant SNC Lavalin, battles for control against a sometimes violent Afghan security firm widely believed to be loyal to Afghanistan’s ruling Karzai family, insiders close to the project say.
For the record, Ottawa says progress on its “signature project” is proceeding on time and budget, with shovels finally in the ground after a careful two-year planning phase involving thousands of hours of engineering and design work.
Canada’s International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda went so far last month as to wave panoramically during a helicopter press tour and proclaim the green expanse of the fertile Arghandab River valley below as the early signs of Canadian success.
(Not to steal the Sun's thunder, but way down in the piece (below), the lush look of the land is explained: "In a separate interview with the Toronto Star, however, a senior tribal leader from the Arghandab District burst out laughing when reminded of Oda’s claim. “It is green because we had more rain this year than at any time in the last 30 years,” the tribal elder exclaimed. “It is not from Canada, it is from God.”)
But a three-week Toronto Star investigation, including interviews with more than 20 private contractors, government officials, Afghan tribal leaders and others knowledgeable about the project, shows a disaster in the making.
Foremost among the setbacks, insiders say, was a dramatic confrontation on Feb. 20, when rising tensions between Canadian security officials hired to oversee the project and members of Watan Risk Management, a group of Afghan mercenaries with close ties to the Karzai family, culminated in a “Mexican standoff” — the guns hired to protect the project actually turned on each other in a hair-trigger confrontation.
Aram Roston's 2009 report on Pentagon-to-Taliban payola schemes, which included a rundown on Watan, is discussed here.
“That was the day Canada lost control. The thugs from Watan won, and the Canadian security managers involved were put on the next plane home, lucky to be alive,” a witness to the standoff told the Toronto Star on condition of anonymity.
“Ever since, the project has been basically held hostage by the Karzai mafia, who are using ‘security concerns’ to stall the work. They are able to put fear in the heart of the Canadian contractors, telling them ‘There is evil outside the gates that will eat you.’ The longer they delay, the more money the Afghan security teams make. The Canadians have good intentions but that is the reality.”
The Toronto Star has confirmed the identity of the private Canadian security officials who fled for their lives: Curtis Desrosiers, who served as a contracted security manager for the Dahla Dam project, and his deputy, Mike Hill.
Now back in Canada, Desrosiers and Hill say they are reluctant still to divulge all they know of the security fiasco, citing concerns for the safety of their families.
And that's in Canada, foks.
But others familiar with their story say both men feel “abandoned by and disgusted with” the Canadian government, SNC-Lavalin and the Canadian military for allowing the Afghan company to muscle them out of the country.
“We were run off for doing our jobs, which was to provide Canadian oversight,” Hill said in an interview Tuesday.
In a separate interview, Desrosiers said, “I don’t dispute any of the facts you describe. I did the right thing and I can still look myself in the mirror. I believed in this project . . . and now I’m reluctant to tell you how I feel.”
The confrontation also sparked the resignation of Alan Bell, a Toronto-based security consultant hired by the SNC Lavalin consortium to oversee its project in Kandahar. When the Star reached Bell on Tuesday at the offices of Globe Risk International, he refused questions, saying “No comment.”
Speaking on background, others close to the project point in unison to the Watan security first as the seldom-spoken flashpoint in the Dahla Dam saga — and a murky one at that. On paper, the company is operated by Rashid Popal, a cousin of President Hamid Karzai. Sources in Kandahar said the company’s largest shareholder is one of the President’s brothers, Qayum Karzai.
And when it comes to the Dahla Dam project, yet another Karzai emerges — the controversial Ahmed Wali Karzai, known colloquially to NATO insiders as “AWK.” The younger half-brother of the president is far and away Kandahar’s pre-eminent power broker — a power derived in large part from his ability to secure and service lucrative Western contracts.
In the case of SNC Lavalin, AWK need not reach far — the Canadian firm operates out of two compounds actually inside Ahmed Wali Karzai’s sprawling Kandahar headquarters, the whole of which is surrounded by six Afghan police checkpoints manned by armed gunmen loyal to Watan, insiders say.
“As a Canadian taxpayer, it makes you weep,” one well-placed source said of the influence the Karzais wield over the project.
Me too, Neighbor-to-the-North.
“The government and SNC Lavalin had better hope this never rises to the level of a parliamentary inquiry. People fear lawsuits is they speak openly. But if they are ordered to testify, all bets are off.”
But everybody weeping hopes it does rise to the level of a parliamentary inquiry -- and quick.
Watan has come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks after it was stripped of the privilege of escorting NATO convoys on the highway between Kabul and Kandahar — a massively lucrative business lost due to Watan’s alleged heavy-handed role in at least one bloody confrontation involving Afghan civilians.
But the ban against Watan and a second Afghan firm, Compass Security, lasted barely two weeks. On the very first day a NATO supply convoy was attacked, with one truck overturned and burned. By the end of a fractious fortnight, with more than 1,000 supply trucks stalled on the highway, the company’s security privileges were restored.
What a piker Al Capone was.
In the wake of these developments, U.S. investigators are probing the possibility that the Karzai-linked firm may be colluding with insurgents to maximize profits.
Watan vehemently denies the allegation.
Whatever Watan’s true role, this much is clear: The mere mention of the name makes Kandahar-based officials with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) go pale and silent.
“I can’t talk freely about (Watan’s involvement) in the project. I apologize. But I can tell you that (joint-venture partners SNC-Lavalin/Hydrosult) are the ones with primary responsibility for security on the project,” said Lisa Vandehei, CIDA’s foremost authority on the project.
In fairness to CIDA, Vandehei is precisely the sort of Canadian one would want on the frontlines of the ambitious, complex Dahla Dam project — smart, enthusiastic, driven. In a series of interviews at Kandahar Airfield and nearly Camp Nathan Smith, she walked the Toronto Star expertly through its many moving parts.
The overarching goal remains to drag Kandahar Province from the stone age back to where it was in 1956,
when the United States first cut the ribbon on the Dahla Dam system — an intricate web of diversion weirs, gates, broad canals, sub-canals and hand-dug capillaries, all fed by a mighty reservoir in the mountains north of the city. A 10-year undertaking in the postwar period, it proved an engineering marvel, transforming greater Kandahar into a farmer’s delight, famed for its plump pomegranate and luscious raisins.
That was then. But now everything downstream is a crumbling, silted mess — a consequence of 30 years of seamless war and misery that shrunk Kandahar’s most vital public commodity from torrent to trickle. Experts today estimate 70 per cent of the water is wasted through leakage and evaporation.
Vandehei makes no apologies for the agonizing two-year buildup to January’s groundbreaking, saying the complexity of the system and the fact that it directly affected the lives of more than one million Kandaharis required that Canada “measure twice and cut once” to get it right. The preliminary engineering work was exhaustive — but a breakthrough came late in 2008, when a team Agriculture Canada irrigation experts succeeding in locating the original 1940s U.S. specifications for the system.
“They found a box of documents in a musty library basement in the States and it was the Holy Grail of Dahla Dam details. That was a huge step forward,” she said.
Work to date amounts to this: CIDA estimates it has removed the first 90,000 cubic metres of estimated 500,0000 cubic metres of silt blockages.
Is Sisyphus a contractor on this?
Additionally, the first eight sub-canals — there are 54 in all, some as much as 10 kms long — have been dug out. Put another way, the first fifth of the system has been cleaned, with some reshaping of broken and leaky canals underway.
That leaves an estimated 80 per cent of the planned works undone — including the replacement of neglected hydraulic systems and generators at Dahla Dam itself, where three massive water gates presently are operated by a single brave Afghan man riding a backhoe. Farther downstream, south of Kandahar, meanwhile, the system remains in total disarray, with no water running in the heavily silted canals. An added complication — Soviet-era landmines remain studded in the silt.
Viewed from high altitude, however, the northern end of the system does indeed glow green. And that is what enabled Minister Oda to claim the verdant expanse as a sign of Canadian victory during a Black Hawk helicopter press tour in May.
In a separate interview with the Toronto Star, however, a senior tribal leader from the Arghandab District burst out laughing when reminded of Oda’s claim.
“It is green because we had more rain this year than at any time in the last 30 years,” the tribal elder exclaimed. “It is not from Canada, it is from God.”
Well, maybe God should fix the dam.
CIDA officials insist that time remains on Canada’s side, notwithstanding the fact their access to the system is complicated by the ongoing Canadian military handover to incoming U.S. troops. By the end of the summer, Canadian soldiers are expected to operate only in one section of Panjwayi District – many kilometres from even the farthest reaches of the irrigation system Canada hopes to rebuild.
Some insiders agree not all is lost. But they say it will take more than new momentum to drive the project past the finish line – it will require a new understanding that Canada, and not the Karzai clan, is in control.
“It is not too late to turn this around. But this isn’t just about the Dahla Dam, this is about the larger question that the Americans are also asking themselves – what have we aligned ourselves with?” one Kandahar-based observer said.
“The Taliban are supposed to be the bad guys. So who are the good guys, Ahmed Wali Karzai and Watan? You ask the people of Kandahar who they are afraid of, they won’t say the Taliban. And you ask the Canadians on this project who are living like prisoners inside that compound, unable to move without Watan’s permission . . . you will get the same answer.”