In Afghanistan, signs of progress

Kabul-Kandahar highway opens amid tight security

December 17, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SOUTH OF DURANI, Afghanistan - Afghanistan opened a new highway between Kandahar and Kabul yesterday, one of the first significant signs of progress in the enormous task of rebuilding the country.

On smooth new asphalt, the 300-mile trip between the cities takes five hours. It took as much as 30 hours on the old road, which had been ground nearly to dust by Soviet military vehicles and tanks during the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war.

But the new road is still dangerous because of the threat from bandits and the resurgent Taliban militia.

Rifle- and rocket-toting Afghan militiamen stood about every 1,000 feet to guard the roadside opening ceremony. Dignitaries arrived under military escort and helicopters patrolled overhead. Heavily armed U.S. Special Operations soldiers descended from the snow-capped peaks that parallel the road when the ceremony ended.

Afghanistan's Interior Ministry had sent 1,000 troops to patrol the road during construction. Still, attackers killed, injured and kidnapped construction workers and guards.

President Hamid Karzai and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad spoke about these attacks during the ceremony and a memorial plaque was erected, inscribed with the names of four Afghan security guards who were killed in a gunfight with suspected Taliban militants. The Taliban is believed to be holding two Indian engineers who were abducted Dec. 6.

"I hope that God can cut off the hands of the enemies of the reconstruction of Afghanistan, because they don't want Afghanistan to recover," Karzai said.

Villagers who have driven south on the new road to Kandahar said they were willing to risk the dangers because Afghan soldiers patrol every half-mile or so and because the road presents enormous new economic opportunities.

The highway is the first phase of an ambitious program to rebuild a 650-mile ring road around the country that links the capital of Kabul with Kandahar in the south and Kandahar with Herat in the west. The section that opened yesterday cost $190 million and was funded by the United States and Japan.

"This accomplishment underscores the firm commitment of the United States and coalition to support the Afghan people as they build a democratic, stable and thriving Afghanistan," President Bush said in a statement released by the White House.

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