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Afghanistan: Key Road Toward Pakistan To Improve Trade, Security

A section of the Gardez-Khost road before reconstruction (Courtesy Photo) A contract has been signed for a $100 million highway project in Afghanistan intended to dramatically reduce travel time from Kabul to border areas near Pakistan's volatile tribal region of North Waziristan.

The 100-kilometer stretch of road will link the provinces of Khost and Paktia to Afghanistan's "ring road," which will circle the country. The contract was signed on April 26 by the Afghan and U.S. governments. The project is being funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and is scheduled to be completed in 2009.

The new asphalt road is seen by Kabul as one of the most important reconstruction projects in southeastern Afghanistan. One reason is its economic impact. The road is intended to reduce travel time between Kabul and the Khost by four hours, making it much easier for agricultural produce from the border areas to be transported elsewhere in the country.

Loren Stoddard, the director of USAID's Agriculture and Alternative Development program in Afghanistan, explains that the primitive condition of roads on the Afghan side of the border has kept economic activity in Khost tied more to Pakistan's tribal regions than Kabul.

"The Khost area has long been isolated from the rest of Afghanistan," Stoddard says. "Khost has a fairly vibrant economy because of its closeness and interaction with the Pakistan economy, but it has always been somewhat of a regional economy that has been tied more to Pakistan than to the rest of Afghanistan. What we expect with this road is that Khost's economy will then begin to be somewhat more oriented toward the rest of Afghanistan, which is new."

Improving Security

Kabul also considers the road development as vital to the goal of improving security along Afghanistan's southeastern border with Pakistan. Khost lies at a strategic position across from Pakistan's tribal region of North Waziristan, an area that serves as a base for Al-Qaeda-linked militants as well as pro-Taliban fighters, who are negotiating a draft peace deal with Pakistan's new government. Despite the peace talks, militants continue to use Pakistan's tribal regions as a staging area for crossborder attacks.

Security officials say road improvements to Khost would make it easier for Afghan and international security forces to rapidly send ground troops and equipment into blocking positions along the border just a few kilometers from the Pakistani tribal town of Miram Shah.

Indeed, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have told RFE/RL that completion of Afghanistan's ring road -- as well as secondary roads to connect that main highway to Afghanistan's provincial administrative centers -- is central to their strategy of deploying "rapid-reaction forces" overland for counterinsurgency operations.

That is why the regional and national highway system meant to link Afghanistan's major cities and economic centers has been a focus of the U.S. military and reconstruction aid groups since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Work began in 2002 to rebuild and improve the ring road's southernmost section, much of which had been destroyed by the Taliban in late 2001 as the regime fled Kabul.

Reconnecting Kabul with the western Afghan city of Herat required some 700 kilometers of USAID-funded construction work through the cities of Ghazni and Kandahar, and through volatile provinces like Helmand and Zabul where the Taliban remains active.

Complete 'Ring'

In October 2007, the Asia Development Bank approved a loan of more than $170 million to make the ring road a complete circle within the country by building a northwestern spur between Herat and the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Work on that final segment of the ring road continues and is expected to be completed by December 2009.

USAID says the latest road improvements certainly will make it easier for surplus food production to be sent from Khost to parts of Afghanistan where there are food shortages. It also is expected to increase international trade through access to Pakistan's nearby rail head, providing a shorter, alternative route for freight to Kabul and relieving the heavily congested freight-traffic route from Jalalabad through the Khyber Pass and on to the Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Stoddard agrees that the new road will help Afghanistan benefit from legitimate trade by increasing its exports to international agriculture markets.

"Afghanistan is famous for some big export products like pomegranates," Stoddard says. "Some of the best pomegranates in the world actually come from Afghanistan. And even in this area, in the area of Paktika, Paktia, and the Khost area, we see a solid [base of] pomegranate [production]. Also dried apricots, almonds, and walnuts. So there [are] a number of tree fruits -- that's probably the way you would identify them -- that come out of these three provinces. And by having this piece of road between Khost and Gardez and being able to get into the ring road, we expect that those products would be able to be consolidated with other similar products from around the country so we could get higher volume exports."

But as with any development project in Afghanistan's isolated provincial regions, meeting the time schedule for the Paktia-Khost road also depends upon maintained security along the proposed route. Work on the ring road's southern segments often was delayed by kidnappings and killings of foreign engineers in provinces like Zabul and Ghazni.