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Once A Sign Of Hope, Afghan Highway Becomes A Taliban Hunting Ground

Highway One outside the capital, Kabul, marks the start of a potentially perilous six-hour journey to Kandahar.
Highway One outside the capital, Kabul, marks the start of a potentially perilous six-hour journey to Kandahar.
Following its reconstruction in 2003, the Kabul-to-Kandahar highway was seen as a logistical lifeline that would bring hope and promise for Afghanistan's future.

But today the nearly 500-kilometer route, known as Highway One, might arguably symbolize the dangers ahead as the country continues its efforts to defeat the Taliban and other "enemies of Afghanistan," to borrow the government's phrase for insurgents and other brigands undermining central authority.

Afghans who use the road warn that it has become exceedingly treacherous, with Taliban and other armed gangs frequently kidnapping and killing travelers between the capital and the southern city of Kandahar.

Locals working with the government, aid agencies, or connected to Westerners are targeted. So, too, are Western and Afghan convoys ferrying supplies between foreign military bases along the route.

"Armed people, Taliban, or whoever it is using their name stop vehicles on the highway," Kandahar resident Zainullah says in describing a recent experience on Highway 1 to RFE/RL. "[The armed men] take a few passenger buses away and search them thoroughly; they take away people whom they suspect [work for the government or are their opponents] and kidnap and kill them."

He complains that "Afghan police or the Afghan National Army are nowhere to be seen along the road."

"The Taliban even stop and confiscate vehicles very close to the police checkposts," Zainullah says, "but the police do little to stop them."

Insurgent Tactic

Over the past six months, security concerns about Afghanistan's main highway, or ring road -- portions of which stretch from the capital in east-central Afghanistan to Kandahar in the south, and from there to Herat in the west -- have risen dramatically.

Last week, a bus carrying 50 people traveling from Kandahar to Herat was ambushed by Taliban forces. Days later, a purported Taliban spokesman announced that 27 of the passengers had been executed after a Taliban court determined that they were Afghan National Army troops.

On the Kabul-to-Kandahar route in late June, a convoy carrying fuel and food supplies for the U.S. military came under attack. The ambush reportedly left seven drivers dead.

The incidents are part of an apparent Taliban strategy to put pressure on the government by increasing attacks on three major routes leading from the east, southeast, and southwest to the capital, Kabul.

Disrupting Highway One, whose reconstruction was a joint effort funded in large part by the United States, Japan, and Saudi Arabia -- is a major part of that strategy.

Once a symbol of the Cold War struggle for influence -- the Kandahar-Herat section was built by the Soviets, the Kabul-Kandahar route by the United States in the 1960s -- it had most recently been showcased as evidence of the West's commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan.

The Kabul-to-Kandahar route was reconstructed after eight months of work in 2003, at an estimated cost of nearly $200 million.

The reconstruction of the 560-kilometer Kandahar-to-Herat route began in 2004, was projected to cost another $300 million, and was slated for completion in 2006. That has not happened, largely for security reasons, and subsequent U.S. estimates have suggested the road will be completed by the end of this year, "as stipulated in the Afghan Compact" with the United States, according to US AID.

Reversing Progress

The reopening of the Kandahar-to-Kabul route raised hopes among Afghans, and reduced a two-day, bone-jarring journey between the two cities to a mere six hours.

During a ceremony in Herat in 2005, then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad called the highway "a symbol of Afghan renewal and progress."

The Kandahar-Herat section, too, was expected to cut a 12-hour trip in half.

But with dozens of bridges along the route destroyed, and the increase of violent attacks, the highway today highlights the overall increase in insecurity and the relative success of the Taliban.

Afghan authorities, meanwhile, maintain they are doing their best to improve security along the highway. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmari Bashari reiterated his government's resolve during a recent interview with RFE/RL, saying the ministry "has taken important steps to improve security along the major highways."

But he also acknowledged that "now we are working on new plans to find answers to the new threats along these roads."

Everyday Afghans see sophisticated conspiracies behind the recent spate of attacks on Highway One.

Khalid Pashtun, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kandahar, blames "elements working for foreigners" for the recent destruction of many important bridges along the road.

"We have complete information about the destruction of bridges -- the Pakistanis and other foreigners in Taliban ranks are responsible for blowing up the bridges at the behest of other countries," Pashtun says. "In some cases we have conveyed to the [Afghan] Taliban through intermediaries that they should not destroy their country's infrastructure as they, too, use it; but they strongly deny participating in such activities. Such actions are indeed atrocities against the Afghan people."

Pashtun adds that, apart from the Taliban, organized criminal gangs with high-level backers in the capital benefit from insecurity on the vital link between Kabul and Kandahar.

"The most interesting aspect of this is that people are taken to Kabul, and then freed after paying a ransom," Pashtun says. "The parliament has asked the police and the military to explain this. They have been told to establish new checkpoints and search everyone."

The Afghan Defense Ministry has responded, recently deploying troops at strategic locations along Highway One and establishing fresh checkpoints. It claims that patrols have also been increased.

But despite recent efforts, there is no denying that the symbolic road to recovery today serves as a reminder of an increasingly violent conflict.

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