How the US military inadvertently disrupted ancient Afghan canals

Michael M. Phillips from Karezgay, Afghanistan in the Wall Street Journal

karezThe underground canals, called karez, originated in southwest Persia around 1,000 B.C. before migrating to Afghanistan. When Genghis Khan invaded in 1221 A.D., locals took shelter there. They did the same after the Soviets invaded in 1979. In some parts of Afghanistan today, insurgent fighters use the tunnels to ambush coalition troops and escape unseen.

Karezgay is in Zabul Province, or “Talibanistan,” as U.S. officers here joke. Zabul is an ideal candidate for some of the 21,000 new troops that President Barack Obama has directed to Afghanistan. Entire districts of the province are insurgent-controlled, and coalition forces here are barely sufficient to protect the highway that passes through Zabul.

The goal is for new troops to clear out insurgents, allowing Afghan authorities to win local allegiance with education, health care, security and other services. But the troops will need a place to stay, so last fall the Army started planning to expand FOB Wolverine, now a small post, to accommodate 1,000 soldiers, a helicopter battalion and a 6,000-foot runway. The base perimeter has expanded to two miles around; engineers expect that to triple in the near future. “It was an engineer looking at a map and saying, ‘We need this much room,’ and drawing a box,” says Lt. Col. Schaper.

The Army didn’t take into account the karez, which consist of hand-dug underground canals that carry water from aquifers in the hills to villages and fields. Every 50 or so feet is a vertical shaft used for maintenance. The system irrigates about 75% of Zabul’s grapes, wheat and almonds. More:

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