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Weight Problem Could Squander New Afghan Roads

Heavily laden trucks line the highway outside the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Heavily laden trucks line the highway outside the Afghan capital, Kabul.
It's a strange thing when the same people who benefit most from highways do the most to destroy them.

But in Afghanistan, truck companies so routinely overload their vehicles that no paved road can hope to survive for long.

The danger is largely overlooked by officials, whose immediate concern is instead the security of the roads. The international community has spent well over $1 billion during the past decade to rebuild the country's main arteries and it's a constant challenge to protect from sabotage by the Taliban and clear them of bandits.

Yet those who know the roads best -- truckers -- warn that the overloading could be just as fatal to the roads' goal of boosting trade in Afghanistan and kick starting the economy as is insecurity.

"The highway from Herat to Kabul, and from Mazar-e Sharif to Kabul, are built to take a maximum load of 40 tons," one trucker tells Radio Free Afghanistan. "But a trailer by itself weighs about 22 tons, and [truck companies] add to that another 70 tons, for a total of more than 90. How can any asphalt road survive that?"

The trucker asks to remain anonymous because his words could easily cost him his job. But his outrage points to a slew of problems with the way Afghanistan's truck traffic is regulated.

Powerless To Help?

In all countries, highways are protected by weight limits on how much individual trucks can carry. The trucks' loads are regularly checked by a network of roadside weigh stations equipped with truck scales, and officials are authorized to fine overweight trucks and even impound cargos.

Afghanistan, too, has official weight limits and weigh stations. But the Ministry of Public Works, which is responsible for them, has so little power that compliance virtually depends on the goodwill of the trucking companies themselves.

Security is officials' top concern: an Afghan police vehicle drives past trucks in Kabul carrying voting materials in August 2010.

Wali Mohammad Rasooli, a former deputy minister for Public Works, says there are some 25 weigh stations dotted along Afghanistan's main highways but there is little coordination with the police to make trucks stop at them or pursue those that speed by.

"The problem is that the weigh-station staff tries to flag down a truck but the driver just speeds by at 80 kilometers an hour," Rasooli says. "Even if we could stop them, we have no depot to hold overweight goods."

The difficulty, as so often within the Afghan government, is lack of communication worsened by an unwillingness to share resources.

Awareness Not Enough

Rasooli notes that even when the Ministry of Public Works sets up special mobile weigh stations for surprise checks on truck traffic, local police departments did not allocate officers to help. He declines to explain why, but the most common reason for noncooperation throughout the government is competition among powerful officials. Many politically appointed government officials treat their departments like fiefdoms responsible only to them.

That leaves one recourse: for ministries to lobby their counterparts and the public to cooperate with it. Rasooli says the Ministry of Public Works has done both, holding "several meetings" with the Transport Ministry and with organizations like the truck owners association in hopes of raising awareness of the danger facing the highways.

But if persuasion often seems like a good way to proceed in conflict-ridden Afghanistan, it may not be enough to guarantee that the roads serve the country anywhere near their intended lifetime.

"If a road is designed for a 20-year lifetime, it will be reduced to five to six years. There are dozens of trucks, including Afgan army, NATO, and ISAF [the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force] trucks, which are overloaded and which should observe the designed weight load," Rasooli says.

He adds, "I can tell you that if the roads are not controlled, after 15 years Afghanistan will be back to where we were in 2001. We spent millions of dollars to build the roads and now we are destroying them."