Asphalt Dreams

Can better highways save Afghanistan?

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.

The lion’s share of U.S. road money is now directed toward smaller roads and bridges—many of them entirely new—in eastern Afghanistan, the very terrain that hindered Alexander and Tamerlane and that helped Osama bin Laden escape from Tora Bora. When completed, these roads—which snake into the remotest valleys and toward the hottest insurgent strongholds—will, in theory, serve as a “fire wall” against infiltration from Pakistan, by allowing more-comprehensive patrols and exposing the winding goat paths used by inbound insurgents and arms smugglers.

The cost of this latest endeavor is high, and progress slow. Sealing the unmarked and largely unguarded 1,400-mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with its endless valleys and passes, would appear to be a near-Sisyphean task. Yet at the same time, it is clear that Afghanistan’s mountains, which for so long guaranteed the country’s security and independence, are now helping to destabilize it—acting as a sieve for insurgents slipping in and out. It is perhaps ironic that one key to the country’s viability—its border security—may turn out to involve the paving-over of the natural barriers that have always protected it.

Asphalt Dreams
The Ring

Afghanistan’s main highway, the Ring Road, is almost complete. Only three major portions are still unfinished: a Japanese-financed stretch between Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the British and Canadians do daily battle with the Taliban; a rough section in the northwest near Turkmenistan, which has also come under heavy attack in recent months; and a section close to Tajikistan. Workers regularly face roadside bombs, gunfights, and rocket attacks.

Hope Through Better Highways?

Heavy fighting continues in isolated valleys, particularly in the Korengal Valley, where road building is under way. But a road through the Pech Valley, now complete, has provided the kind of economic and security boost that U.S. officers say they anticipated. Senator Joseph Biden, who visited Kunar province in February, told the Associated Press, “How do you spell hope in Dari and Pashtu? A-S-P-H-A-L-T.”

Bombs Away

U.S. commanders in Kunar province say that the number of roadside bomb attacks has been cut by more than half over the past year, in part because of road improvements—mines are more difficult to conceal on asphalt roads than on dirt ones. Overall, confirmed deaths of NATO and coalition forces in Kunar have dropped, from about 30 in 2006 to 10 or so in 2007, and to just one during the first three months of this year.