Getting anywhere in Afghanistan is an epic struggle. The reasons? Mountains, the Taliban and decades of under-investment in roads. Kandahar, for example, is just a few hundred miles from Kabul: an afternoon’s car ride in the suburban United States. But until recently, driving to Kandahar from Kabul took at least a full day and was liable to get you killed on account of the terrible road conditions and all the bandits. Coalition forces and the Afghan government made the Kabul-Kandahar road (pictured right) a major priority and after all the improvements, you can make the drive in just five hours — in theory. But security isn’t what it could be, and the Taliban still throw up checkpoints from time to time, so the locals in Kabul caution against traveling the road. Especially if you’re white, impatient and wearing a logo t-shirt like I am.
To get anywhere in Afghanistan, you fly. Aid workers fly. U.N. people fly. The military flies. Wealthy Afghans fly. All day every day the dusty Kabul sky is alive with U.N. Antonov transports and Mil choppers, U.S. and NATO C-130s and Chinooks, chartered King Airs and Ariana Afghan Airlines’ rickety Airbus jets, many bound for destinations inside Afghanistan. Most of these flights are off-limits for the average Afghan and too expensive besides. And even for the guys like me who do have access, flying’s no picnic. Despite all the flights, demand exceeds supply and the poor mechanical condition of many of the aircraft means that cancellations are the rule rather than the exception. (In one particularly frustrating six-hour period this week, I tried three times to reserve a flight to Kandahar, each time with a different air service, and in every case the flight was cancelled within hours of the booking.) Government-run air transport just isn’t a sustainable solution to Afghanistan’s transportation problem. This country needs roads and road security.
NATO, the U.S. military and the U.S. and Afghan governments realize this, and many of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have tackled transportation projects lately. U.S. Air Force Captain Rockie Wilson recently returned from leading a PRT in southeast Afghanistan that focused mostly on getting Afghan contractors up to speed on road construction. Even aid groups are in on the action. The U.S. Agency for International Development just wrapped some major road projects around Kabul; and CHF, a development nonprofit that is most famous for its microfinance programs, is eyeing transportation projects as it expands, according to Afghanistan manager Suhail Awan.
But it’s not enough just to build them. The coalition has got to guard these roads, too. With the Kabul-Kandahar road, the military has clearly failed. As for Wilson’s roads, he says that the improvements he oversaw will actually boost security, as his workers filled in the dips that were the Taliban’s favorite hiding spots for bombs.
Better roads won’t just make it easier for whiny journos like me to get where they want to be. Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Said Jawad told me a couple weeks back that without better highways, Afghan farmers will continue to grow the most condensable, lasting and easily transportable product available to them. And guess what that is.
That’s right: opium.