Thousands of British, U.S. and Canadian forces successfully escorted a new turbine through some of Afghanistan's most dangerous Taliban territory to an American aid project that hopes to increase electrical production for the country's south.
Some 4,000 troops guarded the turbine as it traveled 110 miles from Kandahar city to the site of the Kajaki dam project in neighboring Helmand province — the most violent region in the country.
"The result of the operation will be a much needed increase in capacity to generate electrical power, which will create a better quality of life for Afghan people in southern Afghanistan," NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.
Troops from Denmark, Australia and Afghanistan also took part. The turbine arrived in Kajaki on Tuesday.
The U.S.-led coalition has said it killed 220 militants in Helmand province over the last week, coinciding with the turbine's movement through the region.
Maj. Gen. J. G. M. Lessard, the commander of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, said the security mission to protect the turbine "clearly demonstrated" NATO's and the Afghan government's commitment to reconstruction.
"Despite the disruptive effort from the insurgents, we achieved our goal and delivered the new turbine," Lessard said. "The insurgents efforts have not been successful. They will not win and are not winning in the southern region."
The turbine was reportedly escorted by a convoy of 100 vehicles and dozens of attack helicopters and fighter jets. Western officials have long fretted they would not be able to deliver the turbine safely through the Taliban-held land.
Largest American aid project in the country
Kajaki is an American-built hydroelectric dam project with the potential to provide Afghanistan with 6 percent of its power. It is the largest American aid project in Afghanistan.
The dam was originally built in the 1950s to help Afghan farmers irrigate their fields. It lies in Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan, which grows more opium poppies than any place in the world. And, thanks to an influx of Taliban fighters the last two years, it is one of the most dangerous regions in the country.
U.S. crews returned to Kajaki in the 1970s and installed two turbines. In recent months, one turbine has been working but a second has been off line for repairs. A hole sat in between those two turbines where the third is to be installed.
The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid arm, has said the cost for refurbishing the two turbines and the purchase of the third is US$51 million. But a lot of other work remains.
The region also needs new transmission lines that can carry the new, increased power to Kandahar and Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. That will cost more than US$77 million.
At full capacity, the three turbines together can provide southern Afghanistan with 51 megawatts of power, said John Shepard, an engineer from Tucson, Arizona, who has been working on the Kajaki project since 2004.
In total, Afghanistan has the potential to create about 770 megawatts of power on small, individual power grids that service local communities. That means the Kajaki Dam could provide more than 6 percent of the country's total electricity.
By Western standards, though, 50 megawatts is a modest amount — nearly enough electricity for a city the size of Burlington, Vermont, which has about 170,000 people.