- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2008

KABUL-KANDAHAR ROAD, Afghanistan | The mood inside the bus is grave and doubtful. The passengers have come with suitcases, cardboard boxes, cloth bundles and flasks of green tea.

The time of day - it is still before 3 a.m. - and what the travelers all know about the journey ahead creates a mood you might expect of prisoners of war being transported to an uncertain fate.

“When you´re on the bus, you don´t talk with the people you don´t know in case they´re with the Taliban,” said 19-year-old Asadullah, an electronic spare-parts dealer who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

Mr. Asadullah and the 55 other passengers are taking a ride like no other. In fact, many people think the 300-mile highway that links Kandahar and Kabul - Afghanistan´s two largest and most economically vital cities - is the most dangerous stretch of road on the planet.

Completed 56 months ago, the road was meant to open a gateway to economic development and improve the quality of life for Afghans.

After the ribbon-cutting ceremony in December 2003, the U.S. State Department touted the $190 million project as “the most visible sign of America’s postwar reconstruction” in Afghanistan.

Today, the road is a symbol of instability across the country. It reflects the inability of the Afghan government and international security forces to maintain law and order, and the increasing presence of the Taliban.

Government and military officials say insurgents and bandits commonly pull travelers from their vehicles, then kill them or kidnap them for ransom.

Afghan security forces are widely thought to accept bribes and collaborate with insurgents and robbers. Roadside bombs frequently target Afghan police and military patrols, along with NATO convoys. No one in an official capacity can even quantify the violence.

“I have to take these risks,” said Mr. Asadullah, who makes the treacherous journey between Kabul and Kandahar once a month. “I have to make money to buy food for my family.”

Ramazan Shafaq, Afghanistan’s transportation ministry’s planning director, sums up the current state of the road in a simple sentence:

“It’s a big catastrophe.”

Responsibility for security along the highway initially was handed to Afghanistan’s national police, but shortages of men and weaponry, and the recent increase in violence along the road, have forced the government to deploy military units as reinforcements.

Gen. Abdul Alim Kohistani, the regional police commander who oversees the territory, said he has just 180 men to man the 14 checkpoints along the 300-mile route. The commander said he needs at least 320 more officers and heavier firepower to provide adequate security.

“The Taliban has [rocket-propelled grenades] and mortars. How can we fight them when we only have PKs, AK-47s, and fewer men?” Gen. Kohistani asked, referring to the machine guns and rifles his men carry. “We want to take control of this highway and show the world and the Afghan people that we are capable of doing this.”

Evidence of the apparent mismatch can be found along the road in the form of burned-out green police pickup trucks, four-wheel-drive vehicles, NATO supply trucks and demolished bridges.

In response to the recent surge of attacks on the highway, the Afghan national army has moved in and improved conditions in the past few weeks.

The army built a base last month near the midpoint between Kabul and Kandahar and has established 15 checkpoints with at least 40 to 50 soldiers at each one.

Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zaher Azimi argued that manning checkpoints on the highway is a policing job and the army is already hard-pressed with other duties. Still, he said, the military has no alternative because “instability is increasing day by day.”

While careful not to criticize the police force, Gen. Azimi said that if he were in charge of security along the highway he would “pursue the insurgents into the surrounding areas off the road to capture or push them as far back as possible.”

Afghans unable to afford the $100 one-way airfare between Kabul and Kandahar pay an average of $6 for the bus ride, which tends to be safer than traveling in private vehicles that are favored targets of the Taliban and highwaymen.

Still, the bus ride has its own dangers.

Faizullah, the president of the Abduli International Transport who uses only one name, said Taliban operatives regularly call his office and ask who has bought tickets.

“They’re looking for foreigners and people working with the government,” Mr. Faizullah said. “We tell them we only sell tickets to normal Afghan civilians.”

That doesn’t prevent the Taliban from frequently stopping and boarding buses along the highway, drivers and passengers said.

“They search and question everyone,” said driver Agha Mohammed, 35. “Sometimes they take two or three people off.” Understandably, drivers tend to hurtle their buses down the narrow two-lane road, rarely voluntarily stopping for passengers.

“They never stop - even when people ask or get angry,” said 22-year-old university student Mohammed Latif.

Despite their efforts to keep moving, the drivers said, they have no choice when the Taliban appear.

“I must stop or they’ll start shooting,” said 34-year-old Toryalai, who drives between Kabul and Kandahar four times a week for the Abduli bus line and earns the equivalent of about $140 a month with an occasional $20 bonus.

In another show of force, the Taliban have coerced cell phone companies to shut down their signals along the highway at night after fulfilling threats to start destroying communication towers in the region, said an employee of one of the firms, Roshan. The man requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

“The cell phones are a problem,” said Mr. Faizullah, the Abduli bus president. “Our drivers can’t communicate with us if they have any kind of trouble when the signals are down.” Back on the bus, the six-hour journey is nearing completion and the mood of the passengers gradually picks up. Their chatter seems to rise uniformly with the sun outside.

In a sandy, pockmarked terminal in Kabul later that morning, the relieved group disembarks before retrieving their baggage from the cargo compartments below. They rapidly depart in hatchback taxis and compact cars of relatives and friends.

“It was a good trip,” said Abdul Nabi, 36, a trader who was visiting family. Whisking away his wife and four children, he added, “We weren’t stopped once on the way, and we arrived in one piece.”

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