Road-building Given Top Priority In Usaid-financed Projects In Afghanistan

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 40

Suffering from two decades of civil war and five years of drought, Afghanistan’s infrastructure was in shambles when the United States and coalition forces overthrew the Taliban regime in December 2001. The top national priority was keeping the country united in the face of the centrifugal forces represented by powerful ethnic warlords. The solution was to repair and rehabilitate the damaged roads that connected Afghanistan’s towns and villages to its principal cities and the capital, Kabul.

The focus of this U.S.-led road reconstruction effort has centered on the “Ring Road” that connects Kabul in the north with Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west. The Ring Road (actually more of an arc) evokes a mystical sense among Afghans when they talk of it, as it symbolizes national unity.

Although some form of road or track has existed there throughout history, the Kabul-Kandahar portion was first made into a modern highway by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1961 and 1966, with most of the funding provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). At around the same time, the Soviets constructed the highway between Kandahar and Herat. At that period of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan courted both super-powers. As a result, the southern part of the country was opened up for U.S. projects and the northern part for Soviet projects.

The first phase in the reconstruction of the 482-kilometer (300-mile) Kabul to Kandahar highway was completed in December 2003, thanks to a $200-million USAID contract managed by the Louis Berger Group (LBG), a New Jersey-based international construction firm. LBG reconstructed 389 kilometers (241miles) of the highway; the remaining portions were completed by Japan and the Afghan government under the Taliban regime. Specifically, the first phase has involved the laying of a 4-inch thick and 23-foot wide asphalt-treated base. White stripes now divide the highway into two lanes. The new highway has reduced the travel-time from Kabul to Kandahar from almost two days to about five hours.

Phase two in the reconstruction of the highway is now underway, including laying additional layers of asphalt, building or repairing culverts and bridges, and adding permanent stripes and signs on the highway. This final phase is expected to be completed in October.

The second part of the Ring Road project, covering the reconstruction of the 557-kilometer (348-mile) Kandahar-Herat portion, is expected to begin sometime in August or September. Thomas Nicastro, an LBG vice president, told EDM on June 22 that tenders have been issued for bids on construction work on different portions of the highway. He expected this process to be completed by August. According to Nicastro, Japan will construct the first 106 kilometers (66 miles) of the road, Saudi Arabia the next 120 kilometers (75 miles), and the remaining 331 kilometers (207 miles) by the United States under a USAID contract managed by LBG. The project is expected to be completed by December 2005.

Nicastro said the work on the Kandahar-to-Herat highway would be different because it uses a concrete base. He said the Soviets had laid out huge 7-meter by 10-meter concrete blocks that, over the years, buckled along the seams. “We will have to crack and seal them, putting an asphalt-treated base on top,” he explained.

Asked about the security condition in Afghanistan and whether it will hamper LBG’s work, Nicastro admitted recent “attacks were more frequent and lasted longer.” The attackers were also bolder and “did not run away as easily” compared to a year ago. During the first phase of the Kabul-Kandahar highway in 2003, an American engineer and his Afghan colleague were shot at and wounded in volatile Zabul province. Also, six Afghan Interior Ministry guards were killed in a suspected Taliban attack on their outpost intended to guard the highway workers.

Among other road-building projects in Afghanistan, construction began on May 16 on the 122-kilometer (76-mile) Jalalabad to Asmar road linking the northeastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar, and Nuristan. The Jalalabad-to-Asmar road is one of three provincial road projects also being funded by USAID.