Afghanistan's road to somewhere
QALA-I-NAW, Badghis province - At dusk when the sun slips over the parched hills in northwestern Afghanistan, spreading a pink hue over the land, families and caravans stop to spend the night in the poorest province in the poorest country of Asia. The wells are dry, lights do not burn and hopes remain muted.
This is a story about people living in an arid, unforgiving moonscape; one that could be mistaken for the middle of nowhere, but could one day be a major stop on one of the most important highways in Asia.
For three years, the United States, China, the Asian Development Bank and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have promised the residents of Badghis province integration with the rest of Asia. They have vowed to complete the last link of Afghanistan's national ring road, which will connect western China and Central Asian countries through Afghanistan with Iranian seaports and world markets.
Blocking the way, however, is an expanding Taliban insurgency, which feeds off the idea that the world does not care enough to complete the work. As attacks on road workers have increased and US-led NATO offensives have failed to pacify the region, the stakes have grown ever higher.
"Promises have been given and most of them have been broken," said Monshi Ramazan, the embittered head of the Badghis' provincial council. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks on government and NATO's mostly-Spanish forces are up by 300% in the past three years.
Halima Ralipaima, the head of Badghis' Women's Affairs Department, said that she had been "unable to travel in the province for two years" and that her workers were now being kidnapped and held hostage by the Taliban. She said the Taliban were threatening to destroy even small educational gains for girls made since late 2001 when the Taliban were driven from power.
Delays in completing the road - effectively managed by insurgents determined to stop it - have led Western analysts and NATO officials to warn that the Taliban are gaining steady support across Badghis. Once far-removed from the fighting elsewhere in Afghanistan, Badghis, they say, has become a new insurgent base and the Taliban's "gateway to the north" - the same route to conquest that the insurgents took in the mid-1990s when they rose to power.
There are signs, however, that with an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban fighters now lying in wait for Chinese and Afghan road workers, NATO and the United States military are finally taking the threat - and their own promises - seriously.
Senior NATO officials in the past half year have faced up to the challenge of completing the last leg of the ring road, but not without a reversal of thinking.
"Security in Afghanistan is ultimately defined by our ability to build and defend the ring road," said Major-General Michael Tucker, the American general in charge of operations for NATO.
However, it wasn't until five months on the job, last September, that 55-year-old Tucker of Charlotte, North Carolina, realized that "we had given the highways away to the enemy. I was shocked," he said in an interview.
Tucker found out the hard way when he asked for air support in northwest Afghanistan from the massive NATO and US base in Kandahar and was told that the helicopters he needed were required for southern resupply operations. "I told them that they should resupply by vehicle and the answer back was that, ‘we don't control the roads'," said Tucker, who sniped that the Kandahar base had become little more than a NATO "R&R facility".
"That is what happens when you are running around trying to kill the enemy in a zero-sum game and you don't have enough troops," he said.
Tucker, who is leaving this summer to assume command of the US Army's Korean front, said that this "revelation" led him to the belief that "we had to wrestle the highways back from the enemy". He assigned NATO and Afghan units to secure the ring road, particularly the hard-hit stretch between Kabul and Kandahar. According to NATO's statistics, between January and May this year ring road attacks on Afghan truckers dropped 53% and truck volume went up by 61% compared to the same time a year ago.
The ring road is the country's main roadway and was built to link Afghanistan's largest cities. It was begun in the 1960s, but war in the 1970s prevented the 3,000-kilometer ring from being completed; bombings, flash floods and harsh winters badly degraded what had been built. Since 2001, international development groups have devoted some US$3 billion to rebuilding and expanding the road network. The Asian Development Bank alone has allocated over $900 million for rebuilding the ring road.
But despite NATO's new focus on securing roads, the efforts still leave the completion of Afghanistan's circular highway hanging in the balance with the Taliban in Badghis growing stronger by the day.
American Special Forces and NATO troops launched a limited offensive across Badghis in May, but fighting has been intense and remains ongoing. Even in recent months, residents of Badghis have moved to the Taliban side, according to Western intelligence officials, who asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press.
"Mistakes have been made," admitted Tucker. "Foreigners have arrived to finish the road and that has caught the ire of the locals." Afghans across the country have complained in recent years of massive international development schemes that pay foreign "experts" and corrupt officials in Kabul millions but do not properly integrate the local population into the work.
But few contractors - even Afghans - will dare accept an assignment as dangerous as completing the ring road. Indeed, the state-owned China Railways Corporation has halted work on the ring road 11 times in the past 30 months due to killings, kidnappings and attacks on its workers. Chen Zhe, the company's planning manager from Shanghai, said, however, that his group was determined to finish the work. He said that the road had prized economic value for his country because it would link China and Central Asia, through Afghanistan, to the ports of Iran.
"This is not a road to nowhere," insisted Craig Steffensen, the director of the Asian Development Bank in Afghanistan, which funds similar road, power and water projects to the tune of $300 million a year. "It's central to Afghanistan's efforts as a landlocked country to become a hub for trade and commerce in the subregion, and to expand economic ties between Central and South Asia."
Steffensen, 49, an American from Alexandria, Virginia, asked a group of skeptical Afghan elders in long gray beards for their help in completing the road. He said, after the meeting, that the engineers with the Chinese Railway Corporation were "the only ones" willing to accept the dangerous work.
"Nobody had explained this to me before, but I think I've learned now that every day this road is not moving forward is another day that the Taliban and the criminal elements think they've won," he said, after speaking for several hours with the elders here in Badghis.
If the road is ever completed - and that is by no means assured - it will have to be strong-armed past the Taliban. Kidnappings and attacks on road workers convinced Steffensen earlier this year that the Asian Development Bank should hire a special force of 500 Afghan police officers to push - in time with the road - through Badghis province along a route that now takes two days and the constant skirting of rocket attacks to pass through.
Increasingly, US and NATO commanders in Afghanistan are trying to use special Afghan protection forces to counter the Taliban's adept coercion of the local population to their own ends. Tucker said that the idea of Afghan-led popular protection forces would - in the end - be a real "game changer" in the war across Afghanistan.
Pointing to a map of the province, Tucker explained how NATO and the road crews plan to outflank the Taliban in Badghis province. Rather than pass north to south down the embattled Murghab Valley, where NATO intelligence officials estimate that over 1,000 Taliban fighters have now massed, road crews and security forces will swing further north towards the border of Turkmenistan and cut a swath through an unpopulated desert area instead of through the most populous district of Badghis.
"We can't go down the Murghab Valley right now, so we are going to go here," said Tucker, running a finger along Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan. "In that [Murghab] valley, it is just too easy for the Taliban to attack the road because it runs through a large canyon. You can have two Taliban fighters on a motorcycle and they can disrupt everything."
The decision to circumvent the Taliban threat, which is also supported by the newly-appointed governor of the province, Dilbarjan Arman, flies in the face of conventional counter-insurgency theory, which says that pacification of the local population through economic development is a key to victory. In other provinces, roads through population centers have been a key to prosperity and limiting the Taliban.
Development assistance officials in the region fear that bypassing a major population center in Baghdis could incite more local resentment and yet more violence.
Some NATO countries favor sitting down with the Taliban leadership in northwestern Afghanistan as the best way to finish the road in good time. But Tucker said that with money and orders directly from Mullah Omar, the one-eyed cleric who heads Afghanistan's Taliban, insurgents were only looking to hold the project hostage.
He confirmed that several hundred fresh US troops would be deployed to Badghis in September in addition to a battalion of Afghan National Army troops to help Chinese engineers and their Afghan road crews complete the road as soon as possible.
Philip Smucker is a commentator and journalist based in South Asia and the Middle East. He is the author of Al-Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004). He is currently writing My Brother, My Enemy, a book about America and the battle of ideas in the Islamic world.