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Kandahar, 2nd largest Afghan city, could go dark when US fuel funds end

Alaskan National Guard Staff Sgt. Edward Jones provides security for Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team's engineers during a site survey of a bazaar in Kandahar, Afghanistan, March 29, 2012.

WASHINGTON — Residents of Afghanistan’s second largest city could go without power when U.S. subsidies for diesel fuel phase out next year, according to a report released Tuesday by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The U.S. has no realistic plan to help the Afghan government provide a sustainable source of electricity for a three-year period between 2015, when the Department of Defense stops subsidizing fuel for Kandahar’s diesel generators, and 2018, when the city is slated to connect to Afghanistan’s two major electric grids, the report found.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who chairs a subcommittee on contracting oversight, said the report, if true, “paints a deeply disturbing picture.” The Missouri Democrat said the findings underscored the need to hold government officials accountable for the tax dollars they spent on such projects.

“At a time when Congress can’t seem to find the money to build roads and bridges here at home, we continue to see the maddening consequences of poor federal planning and oversight of big, taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects overseas,” McCaskill said in a statement.

The Pentagon will continue to provide subsidized fuel to the Afghan government through September 2015, tapering the amount over the preceding months from 400,000 gallons in June 2014 to 50,000 gallons in September 2015, at which point the subsidies are scheduled to end.

Afghan officials reportedly told Special Inspector General John Sopko that without the subsidies, the country’s power utility couldn’t afford to keep the generators running.

If that happens, Sopko wrote in Tuesday’s report, “it seems possible that thousands of homes and businesses in Kandahar will no longer have access to electricity.”

The U.S. has spent billions to upgrade Afghanistan’s decrepit power grid, with much of the work assigned to engineering firm Black & Veatch, based in Overland Park, Kan., and its former partner, Louis Berger Group of Morristown, N.J.

In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan came under fire for awarding a $266 million sole-source contract to Black & Veatch to refurbish the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, a project that included adding a third turbine.

The turbine could help offset the loss in power that’s expected when fuel subsidies end, Sopko wrote in Tuesday’s report. But he said installation probably wouldn’t be completed until late next year at the earliest.

Even after the turbine finally comes online, Sopko wrote, the dam won’t be able to generate enough power to meet all of Kandahar’s needs.

He warned that if electric service to the Kandahar region is compromised, “the U.S. government may lose some of the hard-earned counterinsurgency and economic gains made over the last few years.”

Black & Veatch spokesman Patrick MacElroy said the contractor had finished construction and turnover of the power system upgrade work for USAID last December.

That project has since been turned over to Afghans to complete, although records show that last year the USAID negotiated a sole-source contract extension for Black & Veatch to continue providing technical assistance on the dam until Nov. 30, 2015.

“We are proud of our role in the successful completion of numerous infrastructure projects throughout Afghanistan,” MacElroy said in a statement. “Our work has helped to bring power to thousands of the country’s hospitals, schools, businesses and homes that previously lacked service.”

“The U.S. government never intended diesel generators to be a permanent solution for Kandahar’s power needs,” said Larry Sampler, the assistant to the administrator in the Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs at USAID. “The long-term plan is for the Afghan power company DABS to provide Afghanistan with the power it needs from less expensive sources and for the users to pay for it. USAID has helped DABS to acquire the technology, the training and the capacity needed to provide reliable and affordable electricity to the people of Afghanistan.”

In its written response to the special inspector general’s report, the agency said it was studying the possibility of funding a solar power plant and new hydroelectric turbine at Dahla Dam nearby, but Sopko dismissed the tight deadlines and cost estimates of those proposals as unrealistic.

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