The Taleban have denied massing forces for an attack on the Kajaki hydroelectric scheme in the southern Helmand province, at a time when responsibility for construction work and security is shifting from American to Afghan control.
After years of investment in refitting and upgrading power units at the plant, the United States is ceding control of the remaining work to the Afghan state electricity company. Meanwhile, the Afghan army and police are assuming responsibility for security in Helmand ahead of the 2014 withdrawal of NATO forces.
The local government chief in Kajaki district, Abdorrazeq Mazlumyar, says he has information that hundreds of Afghan and foreign Taleban are planning to target the dam to destroy or cripple it.
"The government must increase the number of police in the area as soon as possible, as it will be difficult to prevent such an attack with the current number of forces," he said.
Engineer Faizullah, the government official in charge of power production in Helmand, said that the Taleban had long planned to attack the Kajaki reservoir and electricity plant, but that they had now reinforced their numbers.
"I have recently heard that insurgents have come in from Iran and Pakistan and want to destroy the dam," he said, adding that he was confident that local people would help prevent this.
"During the [1980s] war against the Russians, some [mujahedin] commanders were ordered to blow up the Kajaki dam by Pakistan, but they didn’t do so, because they were Afghans and they knew it was a national asset," he said. "I hope our current opponents will also avoid doing this."
Omar Zwak, spokesman for Helmand governor Mohammad Naim, said a security sweep would take place shortly to drive insurgents out of the Kajaki dam area.
"We are prepared to counter any kind of threat," he said.
Khodaidad, a student at Helmand’s university in the main town, Lashkar Gah, said it was common knowledge that insurgents were massing around the dam.
"Cables and transmission lines have been cut several times…. The power was off for weeks or even months," he said, adding that he believed foreign insurgents were to blame for such incidents.
"A true Afghan and Muslim would never destroy his own land and kill his own people because others ordered him to. The conflagration in our country is being fuelled by outsiders," he said.
One reason why many people believe Pakistan and Iran have a special interest in disrupting hydroelectric projects is not just to undermine Afghanistan’s development but also because these states do not want to see water dammed up on rivers that flow into their territory.
A Taleban spokesman denied the group had any intention of attacking the dam.
“We have never done such a thing, and we have no desire to damage national property," spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi said. "We are able to attack major military bases, airports and international embassies. Why couldn’t we destroy the Kajaki dam if we wanted to? If we did want to do it, we’d have done it a long time ago."
Temor Shah, a resident of the provincial capital Lash Kargah, was unconvinced by this denial.
"The Taleban are lying," he said. "I know some Taleban who live in Helmand and have torched schools and cut power lines. Don’t they understand who it is that benefits most from having electricity – is it government officials, or is it the people?"
The Kajaki dam was originally built in the 1950s as a way of harnessing the Helmand river to generate power for southern Afghanistan. It was only partially completed, and fell into disrepair in the two decades of conflict that followed the Soviet invasion of 1979.
After the Taleban government was ousted in 2001, the international community made it a priority to get the Kajaki power plant up and running again so that it could contribute to future economic prosperity in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The international coalition’s troops suffered dozens of casualties as they attempted to secure the roads leading to the dam. In 2008, a third turbine was transported to the plant in a five-day operation that required a massive military presence. Continuing security problems have delayed installation of the turbine.
Faizullah told IWPR that he could not understand why the Kajaki project remained unfinished after so many years.
"They promised the people of Helmand on numerous occasions that the dam would be rebuilt. But the situation has remained the same,” he said.
The provincial water and energy department says around 40,000 families in Helmand currently receive electricity generated at Kajaki, although this only means three hours a day, and for some households, just a few hours every three days. Some 100,000 households in neighbouring Kandahar also get power from the plant.
Helmand’s chief of police, Colonel Abdol Nabi Elham, suspects the latest threat to the dam is more propaganda than a real risk.
"Armed opposition groups are in evidence around the dam, but I’m sure they don’t have the capacity to attack it," the police colonel said. "Sometimes they spread such rumours in order to maintain a high media profile and demonstrate their strength."
Gol Ahmad Ehsan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Helmand.