Afghanistan's lost highways

Disrepair: Broken by 20 years of war and neglect, the nation's roads are ruled by bandits and beggars, and the disorder could threaten the new government.

April 29, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAROBI, Afghanistan -- The road from Kabul to Torkham on the Pakistani border is among Afghanistan's busiest, and it serves as this isolated nation's historic lifeline to the rest of the world. Like almost every mile of highway here, it lies in ruins.

"Right now, it doesn't look like a road, it looks like a trail through the mountains," says Saydhagha Shamal, the gray-bearded chief of Sarobi Power Plant, as a Pakistani truck painted with multicolored eyes and whorls ground up the rutted track a few yards away.

Residents of wealthy nations take roads for granted. In Afghanistan, where almost all the roads have been destroyed, no one doubts their importance. The collapse of Afghanistan's road system is one of the main reasons this country has slipped backward a couple of centuries during the past two decades of warfare.

Bad roads aren't just a spine-jarring inconvenience. They raise the cost of everything, from food to firewood, for millions of people. They make it harder to transport aid, delaying the delivery of food, tents and medicines to communities in northern Afghanistan devastated by a recent earthquake.

Ruined roads encourage corruption, as local officials realize they are a long and difficult journey from their superiors. They encourage banditry because police and soldiers can't effectively patrol at night. They can even help destabilize governments: according to one authority, the Taliban were aided in their rise by truck drivers frustrated over robberies and extortion on the roads.

The Kabul-to-Jalalabad section of the twisting mountain road to Torkham was built by German engineers in the 1950s. For centuries it had connected Central and South Asia. Once, it resembled a scenic alpine motorway, with graceful stone viaducts, arched tunnels and even turnouts for sightseers. But starting with the communist revolution in 1979, Afghans say, it began to deteriorate.

Today, all but a few patches of pavement are gone. One short stretch in the steep gorge east of Kabul was obstructed on a recent day by mud ponds, a bus with a broken rear axle and flocks of sheep herded by Kutchi nomads. Land mines are buried off the shoulder in some places, drivers say. Lines of trucks kick up clouds of dust resembling the smoke on a battlefield.

The road's wretched state makes it hard to police. Four journalists heading toward Kabul were shot and killed on the road east of Sarobi in November. Poppy farmers angry over an eradication program recently stoned cars and buses on another stretch. Bandits held up a 40-truck convoy one night this month west of Jalalabad, drivers say. Although the interim government stations soldiers along the cratered track, it is impossible to monitor after dark.

People are still dying on the road. In the past couple of weeks, three taxi and minibus drivers have been killed, their colleagues say. All were robbed of their cash and their vehicles. One was shot, and two others had their throats slit. One victim was found in a river, his pants loaded with rocks. According to rumors, the killers hired the cars and then waited until their drivers hit an isolated stretch of road.

Now most drivers refuse to leave Kabul for Torkham after about 11 a.m., so they won't be caught on the road after sunset. "Some are going," one driver said. "But only in fear."

The gouged roadbed afflicts tens of thousands of refugees returning aboard huge transport trucks from Pakistan. During days of lurching across the road's ruts, many become too carsick to eat or drink. Dehydrated and hungry, their health can become fragile. Three refugees, including a 3-month-old, died in trucks on the road in a 48-hour period last week, say United Nations aid workers.

"Roads are the first thing a ruined country needs," says Abdul Khaliq Fazal, Afghanistan's interim minister for public works. "If you don't have good roads, you can't move people. You can't do trade. You can't reconstruct the country."

Ninety-five percent of the country's 30,000 miles of highways have either been destroyed or badly damaged by warfare and neglect. As public works chief, Fazal is also responsible for rebuilding Afghanistan's water system, airports, hospitals, schools and colleges. All those vital projects must wait. "At this stage," he says, "my priority is roads."

As the ancient Romans realized, government cannot function without a road network. "I sent one delegation from the ministry to Herat two weeks ago, and they still haven't returned," Fazal says. "Once, you could have started off in Kabul at 6 a.m. and been there by 5 p.m."

The largest piece of the $4.5 billion in international aid promised to Afghanistan over the next two years -- $1.2 billion -- has been earmarked for highways. And Afghans are impatient to start. "The reconstruction of roads is neglected, but when we speak to our donor countries, no one is interested," Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim government, recently complained to reporters.

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