British forces completed one of their most complex and daring operations since the Second World War early this morning when they delivered a giant turbine to the Kajaki hydroelectric dam in Afghanistan’s insurgency-racked southern province of Helmand.
A convoy of 100 vehicles, protected by 5,000 troops and dozens of attack helicopters and fighter jets, drove the turbine and other equipment, weighing about 220 tonnes, for five days across 100 miles of hostile territory.
The Times was granted exclusive access as it arrived at about 2.30am today, edging through British forces’ Camp Zeebrugge at Kajaki in a huge cloud of dust as helicopters circled overhead and several mortars were heard landing in the distance.
About 2,000 US and Canadian forces protected the convoy for the first 50 miles of its journey from the southern city of Kandahar, but 3,000 British troops handled the perilous final leg through known Taleban strongholds.
“It’s been pretty exciting and emotional at times,” said Corporal Barry Guthrie, 29, from Stirling, who drove one of the nine 36-wheeler lorries carrying the equipment all the way from Kandahar to Kajaki.
“All the way we were expecting to get whacked, but it never happened,” he told The Times, as the turbine, transformers and other equipment were unloaded with a 90-tonne crane, also brought in by the convoy.
The Taleban repeatedly attacked the forces protecting the convoy, but were overwhelmed and lost more than 200 men, according to British officials. Nato forces reported only one injury – a British soldier whose pelvis was crushed under a vehicle.
It was British troops’ biggest “route clearance” operation since the Second World War, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Wilson of the 23rd Engineer Regiment, who oversaw the clearing of mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) from the route.
It was also their biggest operation since they deployed in Afghanistan as part of a US-led invasion that toppled the Taleban government to punish it for shielding Osama bin Laden in late 2001. And it represents a turning point in Afghanistan’s biggest reconstruction project – the restoration of the Kajaki dam – amid growing public frustration at the slow pace of development since then.
“This is a significant military operation which demonstrates that our strategy of delivering civil effect is making progress in southern Afghanistan,” said Lieutenant-Colonel David Reynolds, spokesman for British forces in Helmand.
“Ultimately success in Afghanistan is about more than defeating the Taleban or the absence of fighting. It’s also about creating jobs, security and economic development.”
Nato commanders argued initially that the operation should not take place in late August – the climax of the Taleban’s fighting season – but during the annual spring poppy harvest when militant activity usually calms down. But they came under pressure from US government officials keen to show progress in Afghanistan before the presidential election in order to secure funding lines, according to sources in Kabul.
The 330ft dam was built in 1953 to provide electricity and irrigation for two million people living downstream on the Helmand River, but it fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1989.
America began to restore it in 2004, promising to repair its two existing turbines and install a third to generate a combined total of 53MW of power for the two provinces of Kandahar and Helmand – now at the centre of the insurgency and the opium trade.
One turbine was fixed in 2005, but the $100 million project ground to a halt after British troops began defending Kajaki in 2006 and found themselves encircled by the Taleban to such an extent that they could be supplied only by air.
As the insurgency intensified and spread to other parts of Afghanistan over the past two years, Kajaki became the most potent symbol of the international community’s failure to live up to its pledges to re-build the country.
“It is essential for us to . . . get the turbine in,” said the Governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, shortly before the operation began.
“I met [President] Karzai recently with the British and America ambassadors. I asked them, ‘If Kajaki was situated anywhere else in the country would you have left it so long to…get the turbine in?’ They were unable to answer.”
British officers running the operation told The Times that their biggest obstacle was security, because the road to Kajaki – Highway 611 – was largely controlled by the Taleban and was riddled with IEDs and Soviet-era mines.
So they sent a “Pathfinder” reconnaissance team to find a new route through the desert – codenamed Harriet – while appearing to make preparations along Highway 611, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Rufus MacNeil, who oversaw the engineering and logistics of the operation.
The cargo was covered in metal sheeting to disguise it as normal containers, which were covered in posters displaying verses from the Koran.
And troops also faced a massive logistical challenge in transporting the cargo, which was so heavy that it had to be carried on six British and three Canadian 34-tonne heavy equipment transporters (HETs).
The HETs are designed to carry tanks on flat tarmac roads and they repeatedly blew their tyres or damaged their hydraulic systems as they crossed the Afghan desert, slowing the convoy down to about 2mph for much of the route.
Engineers at the dam now hope to repair the second 16MW turbine in the next three or four months, and to install the third one, which has a capacity of 18.6 MW, by June or July of next year.
It could be at least two years before residents of Helmand and Kandahar start to receive power from the dam because new transmission lines have to be laid.
Insiders point out that much of the Kajaki dam’s existing power output is already controlled and taxed by the Taleban as it travels though districts held by the insurgents. The installation of a third turbine is thus unlikely to undermine Taleban authority in the short term.
British commanders also admitted that they did not have enough troops to prevent the Taleban from re-establishing control of the road to Kajaki after the operation was finished.
“We don’t have the troop density,” said Lieutenant-Colonel James Learmont, commanding officer of 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, who delivered the firepower for the convoy. “On the other hand, the Taleban have lost face, so it could be difficult for them to come back.”