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28 October 2002

Kabul-Kandahar-Herat Road Crucial to Afghanistan's Future

(Design phase of road construction to start in October) (910)
By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- By all accounts, the journey from Kabul through Kandahar
to Herat over Afghanistan's major east-west route is a test of
endurance with potholes, collapsed bridges and areas washed out by
floods.
For Afghan tradesmen, dependant upon transporting commercial and
agricultural goods across the country to earn their living, traversing
the 1062 kilometer highway, 299 kilometers of which are little more
than gravel or dirt, can take as long as one week, according to
correspondents in the field.
Chris Kraul, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in an
August 29 article that travelers are also beset by a lack of security
and forced to pay tolls by bandits and crooks posing as government
officials.
Until recently, the international donor community in Afghanistan had
focused its attention on such tasks as food relief, rebuilding
schools, and repairing irrigation canals. But on September 12, a day
after the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and
Washington, President Bush issued a joint statement with Japanese
Prime Minister Koizumi and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Saud
Al-Faisal, pledging $180 million to reconstruct the critical road
connecting Kabul, Kandahar and Herat to "international standards."
By reducing the time and costs needed to travel between the cities, a
reconstructed highway would also benefit families in rural areas
between Kabul and Herat who need to access medical centers in the
urban areas - a potentially crucial factor for those seeking to reduce
Afghanistan's continued high childhood mortality rate.
Recalling the historic silk road across Central Asia which connected
ancient trade caravans between Europe and East Asia, U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID) Administrator Andrew Natsios told
members and guests of the Asia Foundation on October 18 that
Afghanistan's central location gave its land routes special
geo-strategic and economic importance.
"That can be a great benefit if the road system is reconstructed, the
infrastructure is reconstructed. It can be a powerful source of
revenue for the country," he said.
The authority of the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai
also stands to benefit from the reconstruction, since a modernized
highway would help to tie the country together politically, as well as
physically, by connecting the capital with Pashtun-dominated Kandahar,
and Herat, a traditional trade center near the country's borders with
Iran and Turkmenistan.
The United States committed $80 million towards the project, supported
by $50 million from Japan and $50 million from Saudi Arabia. In an
August 2002 needs assessment for the rehabilitation and reconstruction
of Afghanistan's transportation sector, the Asian Development Bank
estimated that a total of $650 million will be needed over the next
two and a half years in order to repair the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road
and other major thoroughfares, comprising approximately 1770
kilometers of the country's 21,082 kilometers of roadway.
According to the September 12 joint statement issued by Saudi Arabia,
Japan and the United States, the initial $180 million funding alone
"should complete the bulk" of reconstructing the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat
route, including the six bridges that need repair or rebuilding.
"It is our belief that this road, along with others that will connect
Afghanistan to its neighbors north and south, can set the stage for a
complete transportation system, the lowering of tariff and other
barriers to trade, and the establishment of links through Afghanistan
from the Indian Ocean to Central Asia and from the Caspian Basin to
the Far East," said the joint statement.
Two weeks later on September 30, USAID awarded a multi-million dollar
development contract to the Louis Berger Group of East Orange, New
Jersey, to design and supervise construction of the road, as well as
other infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.
An executive at the Louis Berger Group says the company expects to
employ Afghan professionals in the project "to the greatest extent
possible."
"This is not . doing a project and walking away," the executive said.
"Rather, it's to train Afghans to assume an increasingly high level of
responsibility for implementation of this activity."
Indeed, the project is expected to employ thousands of Afghans as
laborers and contractors, thus generating a significant social and
economic benefit to a country suffering from high unemployment. It is
hoped that militia members employed by warlords may even give up their
guns for more lucrative highway construction employment, as noted by
Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in his October 21 remarks to
the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
The U.S. commitment to road construction is important, said Abdullah,
because of its potential to create jobs. "We are talking about the
demobilization of 700,000 armed people. If they do not find jobs, if
they do not have either opportunities, what do we expect from them?"
he asked.
According to an October 7 statement by USAID, the initial survey work
towards reconstructing the road has already been completed. Now, with
the Louis Berger group serving as project manager, the design work was
expected to begin in mid-October, and the 483 kilometer Kabul-Kandahar
segment of the road is expected to be completed in 2005.
In his meeting with President Karzai September 12 after announcing the
joint U.S., Japanese and Saudi pledge, President Bush said the goal of
the project was to develop "a modern infrastructure so that the Afghan
entrepreneur will be able to move products from one city to the next,
and so that people will be able to find work, they'll be able to put
food on the table."
In reply, Karzai thanked Bush and said the highway project "is a step
in the right direction towards self-reliance in Afghanistan."
(The Washington File is a product of the Office of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:
http://usinfo.state.gov)



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