What Started As The Road To Recovery Has Turned Into A Highway of Terror in Afghanistan

Published on
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The Guardian/UK

What Started As The Road To Recovery Has Turned Into A Highway of Terror in Afghanistan

A project that was to bring economic prosperity has become a symbol of failure

by
James Palmer

Afghan men load goods onto the top of a bus in Kabul. (Photograph: Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty images)

The mood inside the bus is grave. It is just before 3am. The
passengers - burdened with suitcases, cardboard boxes, cloth bundles
and flasks of green tea - have the air 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.

Asadullah and his
fellow 55 passengers are taking a ride along the 483-km highway that
many believe is the most dangerous stretch of road on the planet.
Linking Kandahar and Kabul - Afghanistan's two largest and most
economically vital cities - and completed almost five years ago, the
road was meant to open a gateway to economic development and improve
the quality of life for Afghans.

The US state department touted
the $190m (£110m) project as "the most visible sign of America's
post-war reconstruction" in Afghanistan. But today the road is a symbol
of instability across the country, the failure of 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 regularly pull travellers from
their vehicles, murdering or kidnapping them for ransoms. Corrupt
government security forces seek 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 Asadullah, who makes the treacherous journey between Kabul
and Kandahar once a month. "I have to make money to buy food for my
family."

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

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. The road is littered with
burned-out green police pick-up trucks, 4x4 vehicles, Nato supply
trucks and demolished bridges.

General Abdul Alim Kohistani,
the regional police commander who oversees the territory, said he has
180 men to man the 14 checkpoints along the route. He added that he
needs at least 320 more officers and heavier firepower to provide
adequate security.

"The Taliban has RPGs [rocket propelled
grenades] and mortars. How can we fight them when we only have PKs,
AK-47s, and fewer men?" 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." The army now has a base near the midpoint between Kabul and
Kandahar and has established 15 checkpoints with at least 40 to 50
soldiers at each one.

Defence ministry spokesman General Zaher
Azimi said that manning checkpoints on the highway is a policing job
and the army is already hard-pressed with other duties. But the
military has no alternative because "instability is increasing
day-by-day". While careful not to criticise the police force, Azimi
says 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".

Faizullah,
president of Abduli International Transport, said Taliban operatives
regularly call his office and ask who has bought tickets. "They're
looking for foreigners and people working with the government,"
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, according to drivers and
passengers. "They search and question everyone on the bus," said driver
Agha Mohammed, 35. "Sometimes they take two or three people off."
Drivers tend to hurtle their buses down the narrow two-lane road,
rarely voluntarily stopping for passengers. 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.

In another show of force, the Taliban have coerced
mobile phone companies to shut down their signals along the highway at
night after fulfilling threats to start destroying communication towers
in the region, according to an employee of one of the firms, Roshan.

In
a sandy, pockmarked terminal in Kabul later that morning, the relieved
group disembarks. "It was a good trip," says Abdul Nabi, 36, a trader
who was visiting family, as he whisked away his wife and four children.
"We arrived in one piece."

 

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