South Asia

Exclusive: Surrounded by Taliban, India-Built Salma Dam’s Future is Uncertain

The Taliban's district commander says he is getting ready to accept the surrender of government forces at the dam on Friday. The dam's technical staff has already left as the cash-strapped Afghan government did not renew their contracts.

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New Delhi: It’s an uneasy and uncertain time for the Afghan-India Friendship Dam, built to the east of Herat with Indian help over a decade and a half and commissioned finally five years ago in 2016. The frontline, about 1.5 kilometres from the dam site, is holding as of Thursday night but Friday morning may bring a different story. Well-informed sources in Herat told The Wire that the district Taliban commander has told locals that senior security officers at the dam, both from the Afghan police and army, will be surrendering tomorrow morning in the presence of elders.

That may be bravado on his part, but with the rest of the region overrun and no relief in sight, the government forces guarding the dam may well have no option but to throw in the towel.

Like Herat city, the provincial capital, the dam had been a small island of government control amidst a sea of Taliban-occupied territory. But, as news filtered in on Thursday night that Herat, the third largest Afghan city, has largely been captured by the Taliban, its future is up in the air.

However, it isn’t just the Taliban’s military presence that constricts operations at the hydropower project, more commonly referred to as the Salma Dam.

Financial squeeze

According to sources with knowledge of the matter, the dam’s technical staff left their posts on Thursday, as their contracts are not being renewed by the Afghan ministry of energy and water due to the crunch on government finances.

The Afghan government’s revenue collection from import duties dropped by half last month.

Major customs points have fallen to the advancing Taliban while foreign troops are in the last stage of completing their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

With tight finances, Kabul is putting the squeeze on project contracts to keep spending money on defence and security.

The technical staff have already learned to work at the dam site by being circumspect, but the Taliban’s occupation of areas around the dam stretched them last month.

Abdul Jangi (name changed), one of the senior technical staff members working at Salma, is used to travelling incognito on the only main road from the dam to the main cities. “If we are stopped by the Taliban, I never tell that I am an engineer at the dam. I just say that I am a guest or a tourist who wanted to see the dam”.

Now, the closest village from the dam is under Taliban control. So is Chisti Sharif, the nearest town and the district’s capital. The road connecting Chisti to Herat, around 165 kilometres long, has also been captured by the Taliban.

Through unofficial channels, the local Taliban commander insisted on meeting senior staff at the dam – so they called on him. It was a wooing session, with a frisson of underlying threat. “He said that the Taliban does not want to impose…that we should continue our job and that they are only fighting with Afghan forces”.

The veteran Taliban fighter said they always knew which vehicles were being used by dam staff to travel to and fro from the site. “He told us we could have stopped your vehicle and kidnapped you, but we don’t want to do that”.  The critical message the Taliban wanted to convey was to ask the dam officials to tell the Afghan military commander to hand over the site. “We told him that it was not something that we could do, as it was not our job to do so”.

Before the meeting ended, the Taliban official told them that if any other Taliban bothered them while travelling, they should just call out openly that they are operating the dam.

When asked if they trusted him, Jangi said, “No, of course not. But, so far, we have not been bothered”.

Wrong to call these projects ‘Indian’, says MEA

In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani jointly inaugurated the 42-megawatt hydropower project – 14 years after India first took up the gauntlet. India’s final cost of the project was Rs 1775.69 crore, an increase of over 400% from the initial estimate.

Five years later, the Taliban is less than two kilometres from the dam site. Every day, the sounds of fighting punctuate the workday of people posted to operate the dam and the power station.

In New Delhi, the ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said it was wrong to term these projects “Indian”.

“These are projects done with Indian assistance and support, but they belong to the government of Afghanistan. Once they are handed over, we don’t claim that they are ours. Of course, these are very useful and important projects for the development of Afghanistan, and we certainly hope that they won’t get damaged and continue to provide benefit,” he said on Thursday. India has spent more than $3 billion in development assistance to Afghanistan.

Around a thousand security personnel, including Afghan army personnel, are defending the dam to stave off the Taliban.

Control room at Salma Dam. Photo: Special Arrangement/The Wire

In the first week of July, there had been a serious attack near the dam site, in sync with the advancing Taliban lines across the province. Around 16 Afghan soldiers were killed, local media reported. Since then, there have been at least two more documented attempts.

There has been no substantial damage to the dam so far. But, photos seen by The Wire show a gaping hole in the roof of one of the workshop buildings due to a mortar strike.

An energy and water ministry official in Kabul, who didn’t want to be named, told The Wire that attempts had been made to use the local community living around the dam to lobby with the Taliban to not damage the structure. “We asked people living in the eight districts around the dam to tell the Taliban that destroying it would not help them”.

Khairullah Zaman (name changed) had worked on the construction of the Salma dam for nearly a decade before he left to start his own business. Staying in Herat and locked inside his home due to the ongoing violence, he has been keeping a tab on the fate of his former workplace through a network of friends on Facebook. “I read a post that the local community told the Taliban that if anybody was to touch Salma Dam or Kamal Khan dam (in Nimruz), all of them will rise against them,” he said.

This week, the fighting around the dam has been subdued. But, the technical staff  were also preoccupied after they learnt that their contract, which was to end in December, has been terminated five months ahead of schedule.

Afghanistan’s National Water Affairs Regulation Authority (NWARA) is in charge of the technical staff – including around 3-4 engineers – who maintain the dam. The state power utility, DABS, operates the power station with about 30-40 technical employees.

“We have been orally told that the technical staff (contracted by NWARA) should leave the dam area, as the government will not give salaries and renew the contract,” said Jangi. It is learnt that the technical staff left the dam site on Thursday.

Worried about maintenance, he explained that the engineers read and checked around 80 types of instrumentation on the dam body and the spillway. They also operate the irrigation gates, which are used to maintain the reservoir’s water level. “I don’t know who will operate the gates and read the instruments… This is so worrying that I am very sad about that,” he said.

Routine maintenance work at the Salma Dam. Photo: Special Arrangement/The Wire

There is also the niggling doubt in his mind that perhaps the government believes the Salma dam will inevitably go into the hand of the Taliban.

Salma Dam under Taliban rule?

Afghan officials are not sure what the Taliban plan to do with Salma after capturing it. “There are so many groups within the Taliban, and they have differing motivations, so we don’t know actually,” said the ministry official.

Zaman noted that several Pakistani nationals were fighting among the Taliban, who may not have friendly feelings towards an India-sponsored development project in Afghanistan. Heratis are also convinced that some Iranians have joined the Taliban ranks. Iran has always been unhappy with hydropower projects like Salma, as they felt that it would drastically restrict water flow downstream. “If there is any interference of Pakistan and Iran, they will collapse it,” he claimed.

On the night that Chisti Sharif was captured in the first week of July, Taliban foot soldiers systematically damaged the complex that the Indian state firm, WAPCOS, had built for its staff during the initial years of construction. “That first night, they came and damaged doors and windows, took away equipment and furniture”.

Around ten days ago, Akhtar Waleed (name changed) returned home to a besieged Herat after a work trip to Kabul. “One of my relatives told me not to enter the city,” he told The Wire. His relative was concerned that Waleed’s work, liaising with Indian firms and officials, has painted a target on his back.

In Herat, the powerful regional satrap and former mujahideen, Ismail Khan, had led the first significant community uprising in Afghanistan which kept the Taliban from capturing the provincial capital. Herat was seen as a ray of hope in organising local resistance against the Taliban, which had swept through the province and taken over all the districts, barring two.

There is near-total support for Ismail Khan and his men fighting against the Taliban. But, as cities and provinces fall like dominoes to the Taliban’s northern blitz, Herat had also been holding its breath.

Heratis resigned to their fate

The city residents, known for their laidback and progressive lifestyle, have barely slept over the past month as gunfire and the sounds of fighting echo across the streets every night after dinner and continue till the early hours. “It sounded like war last night,” said Mohammed Gholam (name changed), a trader.

For over a month, Gholam, just like other residents, has been confined to his home. “We have to go out to do shopping, but otherwise we stay inside the home and watch news about what is happening,” he said.

All the Herati residents that The Wire spoke with did not want their names disclosed to avoid getting any undue attention.

From Wednesday night, fighting has intensified. According to reports, government forces had managed to push back the Taliban in some places. By Thursday evening, the situation had worsened.

According to residents, the Taliban had taken over the city, but there was fighting going on near the provincial governor’s building with government forces. They also heard at least two airstrikes on Taliban positions within the city.

When The Wire had spoken to Ismail Khan’s son, Syed Taha Sadeq, earlier this week, he had sounded confident that with the help of the people, they will be able to keep the Taliban at bay.

Sadeq, who is also a member of parliament, claimed there were Pakistani troops amongst the Taliban fighters. “We have already captured some Pakistani troops and handed them over to government soldiers. We have serious reports that during airstrikes, casualties among Taliban showed that they were Pakistani troops and even officers.”

Since the Taliban assault, the prices of essential commodities have risen around 15%, but supplies are still coming in as people are allowed to move relatively freely through the frontlines. “There is no clear frontline in the city. Ismail Khan’s people are manning many of the main gateways… But, suddenly Taliban may come out of nowhere in 4-5 motorcycles, fire for about 10 minutes and then melt away,” said Zaman.

There has been an influx of people pouring into the city from the suburbs and other districts,. With educational institutions closed down, schools had turned into temporary camps for the displaced. “They are being supplied with food and water by local businessmen”.

Many Herat residents were also leaving the city -–or getting ready to depart. Recently, flights to Herat had to be cancelled due to rocket strikes near the airport, which was outside the city but still under the government. “There were three flights from Herat every day, completely booked. My brothers and their families have already left for Kabul. I was also planning to go to Kabul and rent a house,” said Waleed.

As the city fell on Thursday night, the airport also came under the Taliban. “There is no route left to leave now,” he said, despondently.

Others like Gholam and Zaman had already planned to wait and even stay on if the Taliban capture the city. “We will see how they behave. Nobody likes the Taliban. They harassed women badly when they ruled last time. But, let’s see,” said the trader, who noted that he also had a stash of weapons at home.

While anxious residents are divided on their future, they are united on whom to blame. They have a deep distrust of assurances of help from Ashraf Ghani’s central government, but the United States is the main target of their ire in creating the current imbroglio.

“The responsibility is 100 per cent due to the negligence of the US,” said Zaman, who railed against Washington’s agreement with the Taliban which led to the release of thousands of prisoners.

He had reason to be angry. This week, his closest friend, who had opened his veterinary clinic to earn some income, died in the crossfire. “Two bullets hit him. From the front, the Taliban shot him, and the back was from government firing”.