Anger Over Long-Delayed Afghan Highway

Crucial route will link provinces and boost local economy, but after seven years’ work, it still isn’t ready.

Anger Over Long-Delayed Afghan Highway

Crucial route will link provinces and boost local economy, but after seven years’ work, it still isn’t ready.

Monday, 1 December, 2014

Residents of Khost province in southeast Afghanistan say they are bitterly disappointed that a key transport project has yet to be completed after some seven years of construction work.

Funded by the United States government’s development agency USAID, the 102-kilometre highway will connect the city of Khost with Gardez, the provincial centre of neighbouring Paktia.

The road is intended not only to link the two mountainous provinces and improve local trade and governance, but also to secure a route the Taleban are currently able to use to get to Pakistan. In addition, it will create a transit route to the main highway connecting Kabul, Kandahar and Herat.

With a projected cost of over 200 million US dollars, the Khost-Paktia road is one of Afghanistan’s mostly expensive transport projects. But it is far from finished.

Work has been suspended three times, according to Khost’s director of public works, Mamur Shah. The construction project has suffered more than 450 insurgent attacks, resulting in many fatalities.

An American firm, the Louis Berger Group, was contracted for the first phase which began in 2008. When that contract ran out, an Afghan company, Mashriq Engineering, was assigned the next two phases.

Ahmad Shah Wahid, deputy minister of public works, says 75 out of 102 kilometres have now been tarmacked, and work has begun on the remaining sections. He expects the entire project to be complete in 18 months.

At a video conference last month with tribal elders, religious scholars and government officials in Khost, incoming president Ashraf Ghani stressed that the road would soon be finished.

Although work restarted three months ago, provincial officials, civil society groups and other residents have expressed concern about the slow progress on several occasions.

There are also complaints about the quality of completed road sections. Rising to around 3,000 metres in places, the highway is blocked by snow in winter, clogged by mud in summer, and frequently impassable because of flooding.

“I earn 300 dollars a month, but I spend half of it on the car because the road is so bad,” said Mohammad Afghan, who has worked as a driver on the Khost-Kabul route for the past 13 years.

“There is snow and mud on the road in winter and dust in the summer,” added Zaki Mohammad, a driver en route to Kabul. “We urge the new government to finish this route.”

Ibrahim, a resident of Khost city, said that the road was vital for people needing urgent medical care either in the Afghan capital or across the border in Pakistan. Sick people often died when the vehicles transporting them were held up because of the state of the road surface, he said.

Hajji Din Wali, head of the local association of retailers, says traders pay a high prices for the poor condition of the road.

“Drivers charge us 150 dollars more [per consignment] because the road is unfinished,” he told IWPR. “Commercial freight does not arrive on time. Dust and soil seriously damage our products. Most fragile items like glasses are broken or lost. It all comes at a huge cost to businessmen.”

Khost governor Abdul Jabbar Naimi has threatened legal action against the construction company tasked with finishing the project if it fails to fulfill the contract.

His spokesman, Mobarez Mohammad Zadran, said the governor had met officials responsible for overseeing the project on numerous occasions and had also raised his concerns with the president.

“First of all, the road contract was signed in Washington – we didn’t have any influence over that,” he told IWPR. “Secondly, local people competed with each other and wanted their own men and vehicles to be employed to do the work. Local residents burned vehicles and equipment belonging to other tribes in the area.”

Zadran added, “We have addressed all past and present concerns raised by central government. We don’t know why the construction work has been delayed for so long. We have assured everyone about security and other matters.”

Nawab Amirzai, director of Khost’s chamber of commerce, said that the highway had the potential to become one of Afghanistan’s biggest revenue-earners.

“On a daily basis, 150 import trucks, 22 export trucks, about 300 small and large passenger vehicles as well as hundreds of private cars travel this road to Khost, Gardez, Kabul and other provinces,” he said. “Currently, 35,000 people work in imports and a further 350,000 people, including their families, earn their daily bread from this route. I think that if the road is tarmacked and used for transit, half of Khost’s 1.3 million people will probably earn a living from working on this road.”

Afghan soldiers, police and private security guards are deployed to guard the highway from the insurgents.

“The national army has established checkpoints on important sections of the highway,” said Khost army commander Naser Hedayat. “We are responsible for ensuring security on the road.”

Ahmad Shah is a student at Khost University and an IWPR trainee.

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