Several months after visiting Little America with Grader, I returned to Helmand to learn more about the contractors leading the U.S. effort. My guide was a 40-year-old ex-U.S. Army paratrooper who asked to be identified by a pseudonym - Bob Williams - for safety reasons. Williams's small contracting firm was the subcontractor Grader hired to actually carry out Chemonics's agricultural development work in Helmand.
An affable businessman with a soft spot for journalists, Williams agreed to give me a tour of his USAID-funded agricultural development projects in northern Helmand, one of the province's most dangerous areas. I was nervous. Williams relished the excitement.
As we sped across central Helmand's Dasht-e-Margo, or "Plain of Death," in a battered Toyota pickup truck, Williams casually chatted with me. Disdainful of the bulletproof vests worn by other contractors, Williams was dressed like a suburban American father on a Sunday afternoon. He wore baggy blue sweatpants, a loose white T-shirt, bright silver Nike sneakers and a baseball cap from "Ritchie Brothers Auctioneers," a Fort Worth, Texas firm that sold used construction equipment.
The vista outside our windshield was otherworldly. Instead of driving down a road, we followed a worn set of tire tracks across a gravel-strewn desert. The earth seemed eternally flat, with heat waves shimmering on the horizon. There were no trees, plants or other signs of life. Everything was a variant of the color brown.
Behind us, two of Williams's Afghan employees drove their own pickup truck as backup. So much chalk-like dust seeped into the cab that my ballpoint pen stopped working. After we crossed an asphalt road, Williams made a breathless announcement.
"We're north of the highway," he said. "This is bad guys' land."
As we continued driving, Williams's life story emerged. The son of a lawyer and a stenographer, Williams grew up on the East Coast. After serving in the army and graduating from his state university, he married his college girlfriend and moved overseas. Williams was an American adventurer like Grader, but of a different generation.
After the 9/11 attacks, business exploded. By the time I met him in 2004, he had a $4 million operating budget, 50 employees and a dozen American government and United Nations contracts to build roads, repair irrigation canals and teach farming across southern Afghanistan. He specialized in completing projects in areas where other contractors dared not tread. Taking risks, he found, paid handsomely.
"This whole security thing has become a convenient thing for people to hide behind," he told me. "I'm no braver than anybody else."
In truth, the agricultural development program Williams implemented for Chemonics and USAID was a shadow of a similar USAID Cold War effort in Helmand. In the 1970s, a dozen Afghan extension agents worked in each district. In 2004, USAID - via Williams - employed only two per district.
In theory, using private contractors should have created competition for USAID contracts. Instead, Taliban attacks in southern Afghanistan prompted many firms to decline to work in the area. With few competitors, Williams garnered windfall profits despite having little experience.
Williams had his critics. Chemonics officials praised his firm's agricultural work, but called his construction work shoddy. One Chemonics official told me a Thai engineer Williams hired to implement a $700,000 USAID project to construct 19 small irrigation dams was incompetent, did not understand English and submitted an initial design that was "a crappy little drawing."
Westerners who worked for non-profit groups called Williams a war profiteer and said he hired away their best Afghan engineers.
"We've just been reinforcing the predatory practices," the American director of one non-profit told me, referring to corruption among Afghans. "If [Williams] is doing shoddy work and pockets the money, it absolutely reinforces the way the system works."
When I later asked Williams about the criticisms, he dismissed them and said he stood by his firm's work.
As we made our way farther north, I grew increasingly nervous. There were no foreign troops in the area. Following the fall of the Taliban, the only American forces to deploy to Helmand were several dozen Special Forces soldiers. They built a base in the center of the province in 2002, hired several hundred Afghan gunmen to protect them and focused solely on hunting Taliban and Qaeda remnants.
As Williams and I drove, the first of roughly 200 California National Guardsmen were arriving in Helmand to create a "Provincial Reconstruction Team." In theory, the unit would bring security to Helmand and coordinate construction. In truth, their arrival raised the total number of American forces in the sprawling province to a mere 350, a fraction of the number needed.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at our destination: a camp built by American engineers when they constructed the Kajaki dam in 1953. USAID had awarded Williams a contract to renovate and modernize the camp for workers from Louis Berger, an American engineering conglomerate. Under another USAID contract, Louis Berger would repair the dam's two turbines, which had received no major maintenance since the 1970s, and install a third turbine. The repairs and expansion, it was hoped, would increase electrical output by 60 to 70 percent.
As we entered the engineering camp, I was astonished. It was as if a replica of a 1950s-era American motel had been built in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. A cluster of small, one-story bungalows provided lodging. A large restaurant served American-style meals. A dilapidated tennis court and swimming pool provided recreation.
"We could fill that baby up," Williams said, referring to the bone-dry pool. "If we could get this going, damn, it would be nice."
He was exuberant about the past - and future - American effort in Helmand.
"This must have been so cool," Williams said. "I just want to make this nice."
Early the next morning, we made our way to the dam itself. As he drove, Williams sipped Crystal Light iced tea, his favorite drink. For a five-minute drive, 24 Afghan security guards in six pickup trucks accompanied us. They were from another contracting firm, United States Protection and Investigations, a startup security company run by a husband and wife from Houston. Instead of deploying the soldiers to secure contractors, the U.S. hired more contractors.
The dam was an 887-foot-wide, 320-foot-tall wall of earth that held back the swirling waters of the Helmand River. Behind it, an emerald reservoir shimmered brilliantly in the sunlight. During the Cold War, American and Afghan engineers rode paddleboats and picnicked here with their families.
We walked into the dam's powerhouse and found ourselves in a time capsule. The turbines, office furniture and bathroom fixtures had all been manufactured in the United States and shipped en masse to Helmand. The Golden Gate Switchboard Company of Napa Valley, California built the electrical panel. Westinghouse manufactured the turbines. A Youngstown, Ohio firm produced the gym lockers in the men's room. The building was a shrine to a bygone era of American manufacturing might.
For the last 20 years, Afghan technicians had jerry-rigged the turbines and somehow kept power flowing. Events since 2001 had puzzled them. Eighteen different groups of American officials, contractors and engineers had visited the dam since then, they told us. Yet the Afghans were still waiting for promised repairs to begin. Williams and I had no answers. We made small talk, praised the Afghans for their work and took a few souvenir photos. After a 30-minute visit, we left as well.
* * *
Struggling to contain a raging insurgency in Iraq, U.S. troops handed over security in Helmand to British forces in 2006. When I returned to Helmand in the summer of 2007, 5,000 British troops patrolled the province, a fifteenfold increase over the 350 National Guardsmen the U.S. had deployed.
Poppy growth, though, continued to spread. Six years after the fall of the Taliban, the province produced more narcotics than any country on earth, including Mexico, Colombia and Burma. Poverty, instability and an epic five-year drought made poppy a talisman.
On a blistering August afternoon, I met Williams in his base of operations in Lashkar Gah, a former USAID house. Williams rented out rooms to contractors and journalists for $50 a night. A dozen Filipino construction workers employed by Williams lived in trailers in the backyard a few feet from a patio where Americans held parties and watched Hollywood movies during the Cold War.
A hand-painted mural on the living room wall was a vestige of the house's former life. It showed Afghan merchants selling their wares in a bazaar outside Lashkar Gah near Qala-e-Bost, a famed arch built by the Ghaznavid Empire in the 11th century. The artist had signed her name in neat, cursive letters. "Janet Howard," she wrote, "June 1968."
When the Taliban took over Lashkar Gah in the 1990s, they considered the mural blasphemous. Under their interpretation of Islam, any portrayal of the human form is forbidden. Using white paint, they blotted out every human figure in the mural.
That afternoon, I joined Williams in the living room as he met the brother and son of a truck driver recently killed by the Taliban. His firm had agreed to pay the man's family one year of his salary as compensation. With a translator at his side, Williams greeted the Afghans warmly and tried to console them.
"We just want to say that when somebody gets killed on a project, it is a big tragedy for us," Williams said. "Your brother, your father, he worked with us for some time, so I got to know him personally. He was a hard-working man and always ready for any task."
Williams praised the driver for several more minutes. Then he asked if there had been any progress in identifying the killers.
"Thank you for your wishes," the brother replied formally, displaying little emotion. "We have no information about these people."
"Are the police not interested?" Williams asked.
"The area is not under the control of the police," the brother explained. "So they cannot do anything."
"The only thing we want to do - and it's a small thing - is offer some compensation, which we will do," Williams said. " I wish we could do more."
"We are also deeply hurt by this," he added. "It also deeply affected our morale."
The brother sat silently. Williams looked at the son of the dead driver, a wiry young boy who appeared to be 12 years old. "How about the little one," he asked. "Is he going to school?"
"Yes, he is in the sixth grade," the brother replied, adding that the boy was the eldest of seven children. "The others are smaller."
After exchanging more pleasantries, Williams departed and a member of his staff handed the Afghans an envelope. The man and boy politely thanked him and departed. I later learned that Williams paid the boy $1,500 for the life of his father, the same amount the Afghan government paid the families of civilians killed in American air strikes.