The U.S.-funded power plant that's funding the Taliban

For the last nine years, the U.S. has funded a major hydropower plant in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Why? To boost economic growth and bolster electrical infrastructure, in the hope of generating support for President Karzai's government among Taliban sympathizers. But the venture has one conspicuous flaw: the American-sponsored power plant intended to stymie the Taliban, as it turns out, sponsors the Taliban.

The U.S. has invested over $100 million in the Kajaki plant, which provides most of southern Afghanistan's electricity; but this tactical outlay yields a particularly insidious benefaction to Taliban officials, who preside over many of the districts in the electrical grid (located in the Helmand province, a notorious breeding ground for insurgents).

The Taliban benefits from the hydropower plant in more ways than one: its commanders collect electricity bills from civilians, deprive revenue from Karzai-allied officials (they lose an estimated $4 million per year to Taliban officials), and channel irrigation for their opium poppy harvests. They also intercept the power lines running straight from the Kajaki plant and sell off the surplus themselves. To put it simply:

"The more electricity there is, the more the Taliban make," says Hajji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the governor of Helmand.

At least the inclusion of a more civilian-oriented battle in the counterinsurgency plan -- for the hearts and minds of Afghans -- seems potentially constructive. But the U.S. has implemented other initiatives that inadvertently support the Taliban, and those lack the same rationale:

A Congressional subcommittee last month issued a report on how protection payments by Department of Defense trucking contractors have become a "'significant potential source of funding for the Taliban."

That's to say that U.S. contractors are actually paying the Taliban to withhold attacks on American convoys... a strategy that seems relatively on par with bribing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow down nuclear proliferation with a multi-million dollar check.

The paradoxical outcomes of U.S. strategies only highlight the likelihood that, as the war in Afghanistan grows increasingly complex, concession and compromise will become inevitable. But in Afghanistan, an insurgent needs only $200 per month to fight effectively, and the Kajaki power plant alone funnels millions (from the wallets of U.S. taxpayers) to the pockets of potential insurgents. In light of those disconcerting numbers, should the U.S. government at least reconsider their investment? If they do, they'll need to act fast: they plan to launch a $400 million upgrade to the Kajaki plant in 2011.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


Israeli Cabinet showdown: Braverman vs. Lieberman

The Knesset voted today to revoke the parliamentary privileges of MK Hanin Zoabi, an Arab deputy who participated in the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli siege of Gaza last May. The scene in the Knesset appears to have devolved into something of a circus: A deputy from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party handed MK Zoabi a mock Iranian passport, accusing her of joining the ranks of Israel's enemies.

As luck would have it, I had dinner last night with Israel's Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman, a member of the Labor Party. Did rescinding MK Zoabi's privileges represent a breach of Israel's much-touted equality between its Jewish citizens and its Arab minority, which represent one-fifth of Israel's population? While he condemned her actions, Braverman also said, "I do not support this sort of populist action" against Zoabi.

This is just the latest dispute between Braverman and Lieberman, who have come to represent opposite poles in the debate over Israel's policy toward its Arab minority. And Braverman left little doubt about his opinion toward his coalition partner: When asked about the possibility of population swaps between Israel and a nascent Palestinian state in the event of a peace agreement, an idea for which Lieberman voiced support, Braverman said, "It will never happen. Never never...What Foreign Minister Lieberman is doing is making statements to win a few seats."

And then there is Lierberman's call for instituting a loyalty oath that Arab Israelis would have to sign to sign or losing their citizenship, which some have credited with Lieberman's strong showing in Israel's most recent election. This idea, Braverman said, was shot down by the Labor Party ministers and even right-wing ministers, such as Benny Begin. But before it was rejected, Braverman said, "Lieberman got his headlines."

The defeat of these initiatives is certainly encouraging. Less encouraging, however, is the apparently enduring belief, held by a number of successful right-wing politicians, that flogging Israel's Arab minority is a useful way to win votes. Effective political grandstanding on this issue, after all, could easily transform itself into changes in government policy that could erode Israel's commitment to equality, and take Western support along with it.