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Afghanistan: Highway Project Paving The Way For Regional Trade, Stability

Afghan President Hamid Karzai calls the country's highways "the veins through which the blood of the Afghan nation flows." After more than two decades of conflict, however, many of the roads linking Afghanistan's main cities are barely navigable. RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco visited the tiny settlement of Durani, where one of the biggest Afghan infrastructure projects paid for by donor funds is getting under way: the reconstruction of the 1,200-kilometer highway linking Kabul to Kandahar and Herat.

Durani, Afghanistan; 19 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The long road from Kabul to the southern city of Kandahar really ends in Durani, just 45 kilometers southwest of the Afghan capital.

Here, in this tiny village lost amid snowcapped mountains and scrub desert, the pavement dissolves into a dirt track gouged with deep furrows and studded with sharp rocks. Cars are swallowed by blinding clouds of dust kicked up by the hundreds of trucks using the road each day.

Travelers who choose to continue face another 450 kilometers before reaching Kandahar. From there, it is some 700 kilometers more to the western city of Herat. The entire trip takes 28 hours, a marathon driving session that officials say will be cut in half once the new 1,200-kilometer highway project is complete.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top officials recently attended a roadside ceremony in Durani to launch what is the largest of several highway-reconstruction projects in the country. The United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are funding two-thirds of a $250 million project to repave the road from Kabul to Herat. Other donor countries are being asked to cover the outstanding balance.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill visited the highway project yesterday during a one-day trip to Afghanistan to review the country's use of international financial aid.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Afghanistan's deputy minister of public works, Mohammad Yaqoob Shaghasy, explained what the completion of the road means to Afghanistan's future. "Afghanistan is surrounded by land. We don't have access to the sea, and our airlines have not developed very well and can't solve [any] of our problems. So navigable roads [are a necessity], especially the road that links Kabul to Kandahar and to Herat, one of the most important highways of Afghanistan. It is of great importance economically and politically, since all commercial goods are coming [from Pakistan] through Spin Boldak to Herat and then to Kandahar, and they reach Kabul by this road," Shaghasy said.

Karzai said reconstruction of the country's roads is one of his government's top priorities because of the benefits to regional trade and internal security. The highway from Kabul to Herat is also expected to improve the central government's control over outlying cities by halving driving time.

Known as Highway 1, the road from Kabul to Herat is expected to take three years to complete and is only one of several such projects in the works. Italy is pledging $50 million to repave the highway from Kabul to the central city of Bamiyan, while the European Union has begun reconstruction of the road east from Kabul to Jalalabad. Iran is funding a highway from its border to Herat. The United States is also spending $15 million for a road from Kandahar to the border town of Spin Boldak.

These highway projects are expected to create thousands of jobs across the country, helping to mollify criticism within Afghanistan that reconstruction projects promised by the international community have been slow to materialize.

Shaghasy explained the economic impact of the Kabul-to-Herat highway. "I think that if five people are hired directly, then it can provide jobs for five others, since the five people who are hired can benefit other people like farmers and shopkeepers by buying from them. So I can say that probably about 50,000 to 60,000 people will be provided with jobs [by this road], both directly and indirectly," Shaghasy said.

Mohammad Yasin lives near Durani, in a village called Andar in Wardak Province. Yasin was a farmer but said the recent years of severe drought cost him his livelihood. Yasin is one of the many men living near Durani who have been hired to work on the highway project. "This road that is being built means a lot to us. We're very happy about it since it's good for the people of this area. We're all ready to help reconstruct this road. And we are also happy that we can make money for our families," Yasin said.

Yasin complained, however, that he is only being paid about 70,000 afghanis a day -- a little more than $1 -- for his work on the highway, which he said is not enough to make ends meet.

In addition to bad winter weather and a shortage of water, the biggest challenges faced by construction crews are mines and other unexploded ordnance along the route.

On 17 November, three teams from the UN's Mine Action Program for Afghanistan were working along a desolate stretch of road outside Durani. Clad in body armor and visored helmets under a blazing sun, the sappers used metal detectors and sniffer dogs to survey roadside areas marked by large red flags, indicating live minefields.

Shardar Wali of Wardak Province is group leader of one of the demining teams. Wali removed his helmet and explained how the sappers work in coordination with the construction crews. "Our [demining] work is going on at the same time as the reconstruction work. And our working program is to clear 1 kilometer of the road [of the presence of mines] before the work of reconstruction reaches that area -- until there are no security problems and [the laborers] can work on the road with their minds at ease. Our work will continue as long as the reconstruction goes on," Wali said.

Wali said his team had recently found three UXOs, or unexploded ordnance, in this area, and had detonated them safely. He said the pace of work depends on the intensity of the fighting that occurred in each area. "Since there was a lot of fighting in some parts of this area that left behind a lot of unexploded materiel, this will cause our work to [slow down]. But in some other parts, which were not war-stricken, we can make good progress. The progress of our work depends on [these] different criteria," Wali said.

The original road from Kabul to Herat was paved with the help of the United States in the early 1960s, but years of neglect, the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and the country's civil war all took their toll on the highway.

At a donors conference in Tokyo in January, the international community pledged $4.5 billion in aid over a five-year period to help Afghanistan rebuild. In a statement, U.S. President George W. Bush called the start of the highway project "a tangible example of the long-term commitment of the international community to Afghanistan."

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    Grant Podelco

    Grant Podelco is the editor in chief of RFE/RL's English-language website. He first joined RFE/RL in Prague in 1995 as a senior correspondent after working for many years as a writer and editor for daily newspapers in New York, Oregon, and Texas. He reported from Afghanistan in November 2002 to mark the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Taliban.