The Ring Road was conceived in the 1960s as a highway that makes a giant circle within the country to link its major cities. Secondary roads are meant to link provincial capitals and smaller towns to the Ring Road -- much like the spokes of a bicycle wheel.
But despite its name, the Ring Road has never been a proper ring. War broke out in the 1970s before the northern section of the Ring Road was built. And in the decades of fighting that followed, large stretches of the existing 3,000-kilometer highway fell into disrepair or were destroyed.
A main focus of internationally backed reconstruction since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001 has been to repair the existing highway and finish building the remainder of the Ring Road.
But it wasn't until October 2 that a loan to finance the final section of unbuilt highway was announced by the Asian Development Bank -- a stretch passing though mountainous terrain in northwestern Afghanistan near the border with Turkmenistan.
"We're providing $176 million, along with the government of Afghanistan, which is also contributing $4 million," says Brian Fawcett, the Asian Development Bank's country director for Afghanistan:
"And this will be for the road from Bala Murghab to Leman, which is 143 kilometers," he adds. "This section of road will almost complete the Ring Road. The government of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Development Bank will do [the financing for the 50-kilometer section] from Leman to Amalick. And then the complete Ring Road will be finished."Still Much To Do
The bank describes the Ring Road as the "backbone" of Afghanistan's transportation network, and its completion will be a major milestone for internationally backed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
But Fawcett tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan it is unlikely the work will be finished by the proposed deadline in the Afghan National Development Plan, a strategy that was approved at a conference of international donors in London in April 2006.
"First, the [Afghan] government has to recruit the consultant for the project. And then, after the consultant finalizes the design of the road, then the contractor will be recruited," Fawcett says. "So I think that the work will start, perhaps, in the first quarter of 2008. And the work will take 2 1/2 years to complete."
Fawcett says the security of consultants and construction workers is a concern that the Asian Development Bank has raised with the Afghan government. He says the Interior Ministry has responded by sending additional police to Badghis Province and the northeastern part of Herat Province, where the work is to take place.Regional Economic Impact
Niklas Swanstrom is a specialist on Central Asia and director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, an independent think tank in Stockholm, Sweden. He says that the completion of the Ring Road will be a major benefit not only to Afghanistan but also to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Map courtesy of Asian Development Bank. Click to enlarge. "The reason why it hasn't been completed is, first of all, financing. It's tremendously difficult to get good finances. And then, of course, the political situation has been very unstable. So even if you had financing, you would have a problem securing the actual construction of the Ring Road," Swanstrom says.
"The consequences of this have been very negative," he says. "Afghanistan has been a crucial factor in the whole economic equation of Central Asia. There have been estimates, for example, that the impact of [completing the Ring Road along with] all the regional network of trade would be 771,000 full-time jobs. It would be immense. It would be very positive."
Swanstrom sees the Afghan Ring Road within the larger scope of infrastructure and transportation projects aimed at improving trade ties in the entire region.
"Financially, it will be very important if Afghanistan can act as a link for the Central Asian states toward" a seaport like Karachi in Pakistan, he says. "Trade could increase tremendously. I don't think the impact will be that large in the initial stage.
"You have to connect Afghanistan with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and, more importantly, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- because that's really where the economy comes from. Then you have the Persian-speaking crescent [of Iran, northern Afghanistan, and Tajikistan]. For the Iranians, I don't think we should exaggerate the geopolitical impact of this network. On the contrary, I think the Iranians will struggle very hard to actually get the same benefits as many other countries."Other Infrastructure Still Needed
Swanstrom says that with no railroad network in Afghanistan, completion of the Ring Road will aid Afghans enormously. But he says there are other benefits than simply making overland travel within the country easier.
"Afghanistan's exports will increase by 54 percent over the next five years," Swanstrom says. "Very much of that is through agriculture. And you will see quite substantial job creation -- long-term employment. It is also an increase in freight. Transit trade. Cotton going from Uzbekistan into Afghanistan and shipped all over the world. And, of course, if you can have oil and gas transit through Afghanistan, that's where the major gains will be made for Afghanistan in particular. "
But although Swanstrom says the development of transit corridors is "all good," he says there is one potentially negative aspect of completing the Ring Road and tying it into the highway networks of neighboring countries -- the possible strengthening of organized criminal groups in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
"With this new infrastructure development, it will be much easier for the Afghani drug lords to transport heroin and opium from Afghanistan to the rest of the region. That's something that needs to be dealt with because it's going to be very, very difficult to handle it," he says.
"We need to construct new institutions -- legal institutions. We have to strengthen the police, the military, the drug-enforcement agencies. We have to make sure that judges and political leaders are uncorrupt," he adds. "That's a huge commitment not only from Afghanistan and the Central Asian states, but also from the international community. And we haven't done much. We're looking at the restructuring of much of the Afghan institutions. That's fundamental."
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ayaz Barhar contributed to the story from Kabul.)