Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dangers Still Lurk on Improved Highways

While road conditions are better, security is a concern for those driving on the country’s main highways.
By Wahidullah Amani

While there is widespread praise for recent reconstruction work on Afghanistan’s main arterial highway, long-distance travelers say that a lack of security still makes for a nerve-wracking drive.

“They caught me between Kandahar and Zabul province in the evening,” recalled bus driver Mohammad Hanif, talking about his brush with violence on the 1,000-kilometre Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road. “There were three thieves, and they had a gun,” he said.

And Hanif was in for another surprise when he sought help at a local security checkpoint. “The thieves were sitting there,” he said.

Indeed, many of those interviewed by IWPR at a rest stop for long-distance drivers in the capital said they had been robbed by people in uniform.

Central government authority remains weak in many of the southern regions of the country. With numerous unofficial checkpoints along the route controlled by various local police units and commanders, no one is quite sure whose men these are.

Armed with Kalashnikovs or even rocket launchers, the bandits speed along on motorbikes or cars. Victims say such robberies are a terrifying experience.

Gul Mohammad, a bus driver who has driven the route for 26 years, said he recently came under fire in the Chekab region of the western Farah province when he tried to outrun such thieves.

Mohammad Eisa, who has been driving a mini van for six years, had a similar experience. “I was bringing passengers from Iran to Kabul when thieves stopped me, took money from the passengers and beat them badly,” he told IWPR.

It’s not a danger that can be easily avoided. The route is the backbone of the country’s trade and cross-border travel. One-third of the country’s population is estimated to live within 50 kilometres of the highway.

Last December, amid much fanfare, the mainly United States-funded, 190 million dollar upgrade of the Kabul-Kandahar stretch of highway was opened. The US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, cited the largest reconstruction project undertaken in the country since the fall of the Taleban as “a tangible symbol of the democratic system” being built in the country.

Taxi driver Naqibullah is among those who appreciates the highway improvements. He said that the driving time between Kabul and Kandahar has been cut from 14 hours to five.

His passengers benefit too, with the fare for the trip dropping to 500 afghanis [around 10 dollars] from about 800 afghanis.

He’s also able to offer them a smoother ride. “Before, when we reached our destination you couldn’t recognise the passengers because they were covered in dust,” he said.

Still, Naqibullah said, such trips were safer under the Taleban regime.

“There were Taleban patrolling the roads, and robbers did not dare steal things,” he said. “Since the Taleban, I have not travelled the roads [outside Kabul] during the night because I am afraid. Near Kandahar, someone fired on me at nine in the evening, but I escaped.”

Taxi driver Abdul Mohammad agrees that the roads were safer while the Taleban were in power. “We could carry sacks of money, day or night, while alone and nobody would dare threaten us,” he told IWPR. He added that he too never ventures out after dark now.

General Imamuddin, the undersecretary for highway security at the interior ministry, conceded that there are security problems on the roads. He said that a joint commission with the ministry of defence was established a month ago to remove such illegal check posts all across the country.

He said steps had been taken to improve safety on another important road, the Kabul-Jalalabad highway, particularly the once-dangerous stretch around Sarobi.

Imamuddin promised that security would soon be improved along the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat highway, and said some illegal checkpoints had already been cleared out.

The deployment of 1,000 interior ministry personnel during the reconstruction process also helped make the Kabul-Kandahar route somewhat safer. Still, highway workers themselves came under attack from opposition forces. Four Afghans involved in the highway reconstruction project were killed while working on the project, and a Turk and two Indians were kidnapped. They were eventually released unharmed.

Imamuddin and the drivers agree that most robberies now occur between Kandahar and Farah on the road to Herat. This portion of highway is scheduled to be resurfaced this year.

Wahidullah Amani is an independent journalist in Kabul.

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