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Afghanistan’s high plateaus and steep mountains have served throughout history as obstacles to foreign intrusion. Alexander the Great’s campaign through Afghanistan led to a temporary fusion of Western and Eastern art and culture but left no lasting roads in its wake. Centuries later, the Turco-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane complained in his memoirs of rough travel through the region, lamenting that he had to submit to being lowered down cliffs in a basket. When his horses were subjected to the same procedure, many flailed and were battered to death upon the rocks. His exit from the Hindu Kush mountain range was preceded by a prayer for his deliverance.
When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, in 2001, they found the conditions to be nearly as rough. A dearth of traversable roads hindered the attack on al-Qaeda forces at Tora Bora, and has complicated the country’s governance. NATO allies squabble over many things, but on one they all agree: if Afghanistan is ever to be secure, prosperous, and cohesive, it must first be paved.
The country’s main roadway, known as the Ring Road and intended to link Afghanistan’s largest cities, was begun in the 1960s. But war in the 1970s prevented the 1,900-mile ring from being completed; bombings, flash floods, and harsh winters badly degraded what had been built. Since 2001, international development groups have devoted some $2 billion to rebuilding and expanding the country’s road network. The Asian Development Bank alone has allocated $600 million for rebuilding the Ring Road.
Road building is by far Afghanistan’s largest public-works program today, and as such it is to some extent an end in itself. One U.S. military engineer, Army Commander Larry LeGree, boasts that—with his extensive budget—he can outspend the Taliban and al-Qaeda at every bend in the road. If, for example, al-Qaeda-backed insurgents are getting $5 a day, he’ll pay a road worker $5.50. He says he is banking on the belief that many insurgents will—for the right price—opt out of the fight in favor of roadwork.
The completion of the Ring Road (scheduled for 2010), along with key bridges and border-crossing points, is expected to raise the nation’s official trade from $4.7 billion in 2005 to some $12 billion in 2016. Already, the 300-mile ride south from Kabul to Kandahar on this route, which used to take 14 hours, can be completed in five, or fewer if you are in a hurry, which is invariably the case. Fresh asphalt hasn’t kept the Taliban and assorted brigands from setting up mobile “gantlets” along the highway, where they sometimes extort, rob, kidnap, or behead passersby. Still, these security threats seem to be only a limited deterrent for Afghan truck drivers, who are renowned across South Asia for their stamina and courage.
Will better roads really make a big difference to Afghanistan’s future? The Taliban certainly seem to think so: the group’s forces have made a concerted effort to stop construction. Insurgents regularly target road crews in their camps and as they work. Indeed, LeGree’s wage math leaves out an important variable: al-Qaeda not only pays insurgents a day rate, but also—according to U.S. platoon leaders—offers incentives for killing U.S. soldiers and Afghan road workers, dozens of whom have been slaughtered in eastern Afghanistan alone. The need for fortified camps and armed guards makes the cost of road construction in Afghanistan 30 to 50 percent higher than elsewhere in South Asia.