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The Road to Bamiyan: A Public Works Debacle that Defines Afghanistan

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch

It was to be a symbol of reconstructed Afghanistan: a paved highway from Kabul to the beautiful valley of Bamiyan. Construction has long been underway, but the project may never be completed -- a victim of the realities in present-day Afghanistan.

Three times a week, weather permitting, an old Antonov operated by the East Horizon Airlines struggles into the air above Kabul. With a little luck, the aircraft lands 30 minutes later on the dirt runway in the provincial capital Bamiyan. The Russian-made plane is slightly rusty on the outside, well-worn inside and, at 50 years old, is not allowed to fly fully loaded. Otherwise, it is unable to clear the Hindu Kush range, which almost surrounds Kabul like a gigantic wall.

Those who chose not to fly to Bamiyan can drive there. North of Kabul begins a road leading through the Ghorband district, a region that became infamous in 2012 after a video showing a mob stoning a young woman went viral. In many places, the road is in terrible shape, full of deep potholes and unpaved. Recent years have seen several Taliban assaults along the arterial, in addition to attacks by thieves and kidnappers.

The third route to Bamiyan is a road that begins in Maidan Shahr, a town located 30 kilometers (19 miles) southwest of Kabul. The new project, paid for with money from the West, is still under construction. But one day, the plan foresees cars zooming across a smooth asphalt surface at 100 kilometers per hour (60 miles per hour) or more, past traders and daytrip destinations. Once the road is completed, the entire trip from Kabul to Bamiyan by car would take a mere three hours.

The street doesn't have an opulent name and, if it is ever finished, will be a mere 136 kilometers long -- just a small strip of asphalt in the enormous country of Afghanistan. It leads through Wardak Province, a sparsely settled, dusty region, before crossing the Koh-i-Baba Mountains over 3,700 meter (12,140 foot) Hajigak Pass. From there, the two-lane road descends into Bamiyan Valley, one of the poorest regions in poverty-stricken Afghanistan. For all its modesty, however, the project tells the tale of Afghanistan's recent history: its hopes, its hardships, its madness and its failures. From its shoulders, one has a view of the last few years and the immense attempt to rebuild the country.

In December, after 13 years, the international intervention in Afghanistan -- once comprised of 40 countries and as many as 140,000 troops -- is coming to an end. For a time, fully 26 United Nations organizations were operating in the country with foreign governments and private agencies pumping in billions of dollars. And millions were earmarked for the road to Bamiyan.

'Too Dangerous'

Maidan Shahr, where it begins, is little more than a dirty collection of houses, but it is strategically important. The highway south to Kandahar, which connects Kabul with the south, gets its start here too.

Mohammed Fahimi, a representative in the Wardak provincial council, also lives in the village. He is happy to talk, but advises this reporter against coming to his hometown. "It's too dangerous at the moment," he says on the phone. So we meet in Kabul, where Fahimi explains that the road still isn't finished, despite several years of work. "Only the first section has been completed, 50 to 60 kilometers," he says. After that, the asphalt comes to an end and the road turns to dirt.

Fahimi also advises against driving on the road. "Even I wouldn't use it if it weren't absolutely unavoidable, like now during the campaign," he says. "And then only with plenty of security: Thirty police officers, two pick-ups with mounted machine guns and two armored vehicles."

It was in 2002 that the Italian Foreign Ministry asked the new Afghan government how it could assist the country. The wounds of Sept. 11, 2001 were still fresh, American troops had marched into Kabul and the entire world wanted to help, eager to build schools, dig wells, erect hospitals, lay out women's gardens and establish democracy. Every project was seen as a weapon in the fight against international terrorism. Germany, too, was being defended in the Hindu Kush, politicians said at the time.

The Afghan government told the Italians they wanted a road, a connection between Kabul and Bamiyan -- between the capital and the isolated hinterlands. It was also to be a symbol of reconciliation. The Hazara live in Bamiyan Province, a people who suffered a great deal under Taliban rule. The Italians agreed.

At the time, only about 100 kilometers of the roads in Afghanistan were paved. But the new road was more than just a modest effort to extend that network and it wasn't just leading to an unknown Afghan village with a difficult-to-pronounce name. Bamiyan was known throughout the world for being a site of Islamist excess. It was there that the Taliban in 2001 blew up the "unislamic" Buddhas of Bamiyan, at 53 and 35 meters high, the tallest Buddha statues in the world. They were also some 1,500 years old, and their destruction became symbolic of the Taliban's barbarism. The new road would connect the site to Kabul.

Death Road

Work began in August 2006 after the project was kicked off with a large ceremony attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Western diplomats and Habiba Sarabi, who was governor of the Bamiyan Province at the time. Even today, she is still emotional when talking about that day. "It was one of the most special moments in my life," she says.

Eight years later, in 2014, Mohammed Fahimi opens a worn out notebook and says: "It goes like this, for example. A car is stopped. The people have to get out. They are blindfolded and then lined up at the edge of the road. Then the Kalashnikovs do their work. The corpses are left by the roadside. That's what happened in ...," Fahimi looks into his notebook, "... the spring of 2012."

In recent years, Fahimi has sought to document every incident on the road in his notebook, insofar as he hears about them. The journal is incomplete, but it gives one an impression of the situation. Twenty to 30 dead in four years, Fahimi says, killed by mines, homemade explosives or targeted gunfire. Not to mention the hold-ups and ransom kidnappings.

"Sometimes, the police are only 100 meters away, but they don't do anything out of fear," Fahimi says. "The Taliban disappear from the road again and vanish into their areas, the villages." The road has even received a nickname among Afghans and in the press: Death Road.

"In the beginning, everything went well," says Ahmad Najafi, the 55-year-old who has been head of the project since 2005. He is sitting in the Public Works Ministry in Kabul, an old Russian concrete-block building with dark hallways, dirty carpeting and several broken windows. Sometimes, foil is taped over the holes, but sometimes it isn't, allowing the wind to whistle through the building as through a haunted castle.

The ministry has had a difficult time lately. In April, the deputy minister was abducted on his way to work. Then complaints began flooding in because many roads in the country were disintegrating under rainfall like Saltine crackers. Ahmad Najafi, in his third-floor office, doesn't look particularly happy either. He has been working in the ministry for 32 years and has seen the Russians, the mujahedeen, the Taliban and the Westerners come and go. The revolving door of power is the only thing that people in Afghanistan can really depend on.

A Restful Province

"We didn't run into any problems during the surveying phase. Everything was just fine. The construction firm for the first section was China Railway," Najafi explains, adding that their offer was the cheapest. And they brought everything with them: construction machinery and workers as well, a total of 300 people. "We established a construction camp and everything was ready. But the attacks soon began. Machinery was stolen or burned. One engineer was even killed by a mine." Finally, the Chinese financial supervisor was taken hostage for three months. "Because of the Taliban attacks, we had to keep discontinuing construction, sometimes for months at a time."

Eventually, they drove to the villages to speak with the elders, often a necessary step to solve problems in Afghanistan. Wardak is a restful province populated by Pashtuns, and a place where the state has little power. But village residents are well connected with the Taliban. "In the end, we paid the people in the villages to protect our construction project," Najafi says.

He says that forcing the payment of protection money is a tried-and-true business model. First, the Taliban spreads fear and terror before village elders then send their people to promise security. The protection money is then shared out. In other words, a portion of the €100 million the Italian state made available for the road flows directly into Taliban pockets.

When asked how long it took to build the first section of the road, Najafi answers, "Five years. For 54 kilometers."

After that, the Chinese no longer wanted to help with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. They didn't even make an offer for the second section of the road.

"They left as fast as they could. They even left their construction machinery behind," Najafi says. He steps up to the big map hanging in his office. The second section of the road leads through the towering Koh-i-Baba Mountains across Hajigak Pass. It is rugged territory.

To speed up the project, two companies are working together on the second section, with kilometer 54 to 74 being built by the Afghan firm Gholghola. It belongs to Mohammed Nabi Khalili, a brother of the Afghan vice president. Khalili describes the situation in his region as follows: "Quiet. Two people have thus far been shot at, machinery destroyed and the construction camp was attacked with rockets." Khalili himself has avoided the road since a remotely detonated IED ripped apart his car not far from Maidan Shahr. Somehow, he managed to survive.

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1. Shambles Where?
stuartstein 09/30/2014
Hardly anyone would be surprised by the state of affairs depicted in this article. Is it not somewhat ironic to suggest that this defines Afghanistan given the extensive articles in Der Spiegel covering the long awaited airport in Berlin and the state of the weapon systems of the Bundeswehr. Do these failures define Germany? I think not.
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