Saturday, July 14, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Six years after the fall of the Taliban, road-building efforts are advancing so slowly that coalition troops and U.N. and civilian aid workers still move around this mountainous country primarily by aircraft.

U.S. forces had identified the nation’s decrepit road system as a top priority for the ambitious reconstruction program that was intended to demonstrate to Afghans the superiority of Western techniques.

But poor security combined with persistent charges of corruption have combined to stall many road-building projects, frustrating efforts to boost the economy and creating a major obstacle to effective military operations.

Yesterday, NATO-led and Afghan troops clashed with Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan, leaving 10 suspected militants dead, an Afghan army officer said.

A NATO and Afghan army soldier were wounded in a second straight day of clashes in the Gereshk district of Helmand province. On Thursday, 20 other suspected militants were killed in fighting with NATO and Afghan forces.

Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, said road building, together with electricity generation, are among the country’s most urgent infrastructure needs.

Immediately after the invasion in late 2001, the U.S. Agency for International Development began a $300 million project to upgrade and pave a barely passable ring highway that circles the country, linking Kabul with the critical southern city of Kandahar.

Today, the project is more than three-quarters complete, but Afghans advise against using it because of the risk of Taliban ambushes.

Near Kandahar, attacks have held up work on a 75-mile stretch of the ring road, which is managed by Japanese engineers. That delay in turn has slowed greatly needed repairs to the massive Kajaki Dam, whose generators provide power to 2 million people.

Around Kabul, corruption is widely blamed for delays in the completion of the main road connecting the international airport to downtown.

Major portions of the Great Massoud Road have been widened and paved and now handle steady streams of Afghan and coalition traffic. But a mile-long stretch remains unpaved two years after a ribbon-cutting ceremony marking a project to improve this part of the road.

Local businessmen say the dust kicked up by passing cars makes their children sick and chases away customers. Malik, a local shop owner who, like many Afghans, goes by one name, said government corruption leeches away funds for the construction work.

Such charges are endorsed by Tom Koenigs, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, who called a press conference last month to decry what he called an “era of lawlessness and corruption” in the country.

In Kabul and other major cities, road construction falls to Afghan and foreign firms and is often financed by donor nations. Foreign nonprofit organizations such as USAID sometimes provide management expertise.

Cooperative Housing Foundation International, a Silver Spring, Md.-based development firm primarily known for disbursing “micro-loans” to struggling entrepreneurs, is now looking at road projects as it expands its Afghanistan operations, according to country director Suhail Awan.

In outlying provinces, fighting with the Taliban means that road construction is tasked primarily to 24 military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

In December, a U.S. Air Force-led PRT completed a project to improve a major transportation artery in the town of Qalat in Zabul province.

“I oversaw the construction of about 70 miles of road, a number of bridges and different facility projects pushing out into these areas where the government has had difficulty in the past,” said Capt. Rockie Wilson, the PRT commander.

But even the heavily defended PRT found its progress impeded by attacks. A Taliban ambush of Capt. Wilson’s team killed one Afghan soldier before Air Force jets intervened.

Capt. Wilson said better roads will enable Afghan and coalition forces to respond more quickly to reported Taliban activity.

Even then, said U.S. Army Col. Raymond Bouchard, a senior police trainer, the Afghan national police’s quick-reaction forces will not be safe on the highways without blast-proof trucks costing $500,000 each. The trucks are part of a $1.6 billion arms package for Afghan forces approved by Congress last month.

Mr. Jawad, the ambassador, said farmers who now grow poppies for opium production can be expected to switch to legal but perishable crops only when the roads are improved.

“They grow grapes in Kandahar, but these must be transported fast to market in India,” he said. “Opium is easy to transport.”

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