Helmand River revisited

June 12, 2007

 A few days ago I wrote in this blog about how the Helmand
River valley was rendered fertile by an ancient irrigation
system built by the Pashtun tribes in the area. As diplomats
here have pointed out to me, thats only part of the story.

 A look at a map of Lashkar Gah shows the extent to which the
contemporary geography of the entire province is a far more
recent creation. The provincial capital was in fact designed and
built by the Americans in the 1960s, complete with an
American-style grid layout of streets, about 20 kilometres from
the mediaeval commercial centre Gereshk. At the height of the
Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were competing for
influence in Afghanistan, U.S. engineers built one of the
biggest overseas development projects in history, the giant
Kajaki dam at the top of the Sangin valley, and the Helmand
River Valley Project below, which extended the ancient
irrigation system with a vast network of modern canals and

    Thirty years later, securing the dam and the road leading to
it are now the main objectives of U.S. and British forces in the
area. Theres a lesson about the extent to which massive
aid projects and military interventions, since the British and Russians
first plotted and counterplotted here in the Great Game of the
19th Century, have never yet succeeded in buying the long-term
political influence that planners in foreign capitals intended.

A British soldier stands in front of a school during a patrol in Mukhtar

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