The Road to Bamiyan A Public Works Debacle that Defines Afghanistan

By Jochen-Martin Gutsch

Part 2: Starting from the Beginning


The Afghan company Omran is responsible for kilometer 74 to 98 with the Iranian firm Abad Rahan Pars building kilometer 98 to 136, the longest segment. It is also the safest, deep in peaceful Bamiyan.

Hassan Norusi, a lonely man from Isfahan, is head of construction for the final segment. In the construction camp, he has the Afghan chef cook Iranian dishes in an attempt to combat his homesickness. Every day, Norusi hopes that he will soon be able to leave Afghanistan. "There is nothing here, not even electricity," he says. Furthermore, Norusi says, the road is of extremely poor quality. The way it is being built, he says, means that it won't last much beyond three or four years at the most.

The new road is of poor quality? Ahmad Najafi, sitting behind his ministry desk in Kabul, thinks for a moment. "That is the concern, yes."

Such worries have to do with the asphalt. The road was built with a layer of asphalt that is six centimeters (2.4 inches) thick, consistent with the Italian blueprints. "But we have extreme winters here with snowfall and extreme heat in the summer," he explains. Then there are the trucks, completely overloaded, that drive on the roads. And we have bomb attacks and mines." Really, a 10 centimeter layer is necessary, Najafi says, or even 11.

The construction companies say the same. The road, as currently built, would work well as a connector to Turin or Florence. The first 54 kilometers, finished in 2011, are already in need of repairs, Najafi says. Which means that the end of the highway isn't even finished yet and they already have to start again from the beginning. It is difficult to comprehend: So much effort, so much money, so many people who risked their lives. And the road top is too thin.

Originally, the plans called for tunnels to be built as well, due to the up to eight meters of snow that accumulates during the winter on Hajigak Pass. But the budget is tight and the Italians don't want to throw more money at the project, so the tunnels have been struck from the blueprint, meaning the road will likely have to be closed in the wintertime. "We have neither machinery nor money for snow removal," Najafi says.

An Eternal Optimist

The road can be clearly seen from above, visible to those who board the old, rickety Antonov for the flight to Bamiyan as it winds its way through the mountains. But the route must be breathtakingly beautiful. "From a tourism perspective, it is the most beautiful drive in Afghanistan, a real experience," says Mohammed Reza Ibrahim.

Ibrahim, the 32-year-old director of the Bamiyan Tourism Association, is an incurable optimist. The road has already become part of his great vision, that of making "tourism into the most important economic sector in Bamiyan." He also has a plan.

He leads the way through the empty courtyard of a hostel. It is an odd place, perhaps because it is so peaceful. "Come along," he says before heading down a flight of stairs into a small basement. Ibrahim opens the door and switches on the light. "Here," he says, pointing proudly to a few shelves.

Sitting on the shelves are perhaps 40 pairs of downhill skis of all sizes, ski boots and three snowboards. The equipment is used, donated from New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland, and is now sitting in what is likely the only such ski storage basement in all of Afghanistan, a country full of dramatic mountains with no skiers. For now.

Mohammed Ibrahim would like to change that. "We have the best conditions for ski tourism," he says, stroking one of the snowboards. "We have high mountains. We have snow. We have long winters. And in 2015, we will hopefully be getting three snowmobiles."

Only the tourists and the skiers are missing. "Last year, we unfortunately only had about 800 registered visitors to Bamiyan," Ibrahim says, and almost all of them were Afghans. A few Westerners from NGOs also made the trip from Kabul, hoping for a few days of relaxation. Ibrahim knows that for people from outside of Afghanistan, his country is akin to the heart of darkness.

But he prefers to concentrate on the potential. Bamiyan Valley is a green jewel in a dusty, dangerous country. In the 1970s, before all of the wars, over 100,000 tourists visited Bamiyan every year.

Paragliding in the Hindu Kush?

Ibrahim would like to turn the clock back to those rosier times. "First, we are concentrating on domestic tourism," he says. Later, he hopes that international guests will begin coming again as well. "We can offer everything here: trekking in the mountains, rafting in the rivers, even paragliding. We have attractions to offer, like the lakes in Band-e-Amir, Afghanistan's first national park."

It is nice to meet someone in Afghanistan who hasn't yet been driven to despair by the current state of the country. Ibrahim's optimism is almost American in its indestructability. Listening to him, visitors from the West feel like traitors, because the West has long since lost all hope for Ibrahim's country and has but a single goal: getting out.

"You see, I am an optimist," Ibrahim says. "How else can you survive in Afghanistan?"

He sees the new road as a gateway to the world. And vastly superior to the rickety Antonov. Still, he adds, it would be nice to know when that gateway might open, or if it ever will.

Not even Vittorio Roscio knows for sure. Originally, the road was scheduled to open in August of 2015. Roscio, a 59-year-old from Italy, looks exhausted sitting in a plain room in the Italian government compound in Kabul. It is from here that he oversees construction as a kind of Western watchdog. His job is to keep an eye on Italy's money.

"Six centimeters of asphalt are definitely enough," Roscio says. "Of course, a bit more might have been nice, as would a tunnel in the mountains. But unfortunately we have to stay within the budget." And the budget is €100 million. Roscio knows that he can save himself the trouble of asking Rome for a few million more -- for a road project in Afghanistan with an uncertain outcome. Afghanistan's importance has waned for the West over the years, becoming an almost forgotten problem child that is slowly disappearing into the haze of history. After 13 years, everyone is tired, disillusioned and annoyed.

Roscio, who has been in the country for seven years, says that he likes Afghanistan. He complains that people from the West think too simply and don't see the pitfalls that can befall a project like the one he is leading. The cemeteries, for example. "Afghans bury their dead everywhere. Sometimes there is a small mound, but many graves are virtually unrecognizable as such. And suddenly, the villagers come up and say: 'You can't build a road here. People are buried here.'" In such situations, they have two possibilities, Roscio explains. They can change the route, which is very expensive, or they can rebury the dead, which is extremely delicate. "Go to a Pashtun family and say: 'Salam aleikum. We would like to exhume your dead father. Would you be opposed?'"

In a Convertible to Bamiyan

Roscio hasn't visited the construction site for ages because it is too dangerous. Instead, he reads the reports here, behind the walls of the Italian government's campus in Kabul. Over the years, the walls became thicker and thicker, the barbed wire higher and the security protocols stricter. In 2007, Rocio could still walk relatively freely through the streets of Kabul. Now, though, he climbs into a bullet-proof Toyota SUV even for the 30 meters to the Italian Embassy.

Like all international workers in Kabul, Roscio lives in the equivalent of a high security cage and is rarely allowed to go out. As such, his influence over the road to Bamiyan has fallen markedly over the years.

"It is unfortunately extremely difficult to understand Afghanistan from the perspective of Kabul," Roscio says tiredly. "And it is completely impossible to understand Afghanistan from Europe or America. No chance." He gets into one of the bullet-proof Toyotas and is driven to the Italian Embassy. The wall opens briefly to let him out and closes again immediately.

In the Embassy, Italian Ambassador Luciano Pezzotti is waiting. He also has something to say about the road, but somehow he just forgot what it was exactly. Pezzotti is a stylish man who was previously posted in the Consulate General in Jerusalem. A grand piano is in the ground floor of the residence and the walls are decorated with a framed photo of Pezzotti with Pope Benedict XVI and another of him in the Ferrari Formula One camp. Pezzotti likes fast cars, a possible explanation for the sentence he utters after the obligatory statements on Afghan elections and progress on women's rights. "I bet that in 10 years, you will be able to drive a convertible from Kabul to Bamiyan without trouble," he says. "On the new road."

It is a nice bet. But Mohammed Ibrahim, the optimistic tourism director from Bamiyan, prefers looking for alternatives. "We want to establish direct international flights," he says, after emerging from the basement full of skis. "From Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan. The motto could be: 'Come directly to Bamiyan! The safest place in Afghanistan!'"

Then, people could just fly right over the cursed road. Over the Taliban, the IEDs, the poverty and the madness. Over the entire traumatized country, which, after 13 years of international engagement, once again finds itself back at the beginning.

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stuartstein 09/30/2014
1. Shambles Where?
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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