The Road from Kabul to Kandahar
How is Afghanistan’s reconstruction coming along?
The highlight of my first 100 days in Afghanistan surely was a two-day trip from Kabul to the ancient city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
It is a truly historic road. As James Michener, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, had put it in 1946:
"The road from Kabul to Kandahar was about 300 miles long and had been in existence for some 3,000 years. Judging from its condition at the end of winter in 1946, the last repairs must have been completed at least 800 years ago, for each mile of the road involved a particular adventure."
The road from Kabul to Kandahar has been dramatically improved due to an expenditure of almost $300 million in 2003-04 by the U.S. government. And yet, James Michener did not understate its ability to provide a real adventure.
We left at sunrise on November 17, 2004. There were six "principals" — that is people who are supposed to be protected: Two colonels from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a senior representative from Louis Berger (the general contractor which built the road), two Afghanistan Reconstruction Group colleagues and myself.
Normally, six people would very comfortably fit into two vehicles. On this trip, we used 14 vehicles — plus an armed helicopter.
As the bodyguards described it, we were heading into "Indian country," so a significant show of force was necessary.
In this massive convoy, each vehicle had two "principals" plus an Afghan driver and a heavily armed bodyguard. All of the other vehicles were filled with armed security personnel — both American and Afghan.
At the end of the convoy was an open bed pickup truck outfitted with a nasty looking soldier-of-fortune type. He wore Oakley sunglasses, a bandanna over both his nose and mouth — and an enormous machine gun with a barrel approaching four feet in length.
Add to all this a menacing helicopter, which was constantly flying in circles around the convoy — and blowing up huge clouds of dust at any pedestrian or vehicle which dared to approach us. It was our own small contribution to "shock and awe". Not exactly a low-key trip through the countryside.
All this security notwithstanding, three times that day vehicles loaded with armed Taliban tried to attack the convoy, but were effectively repulsed by the helicopter.
Within the convoy itself, the "principals" were oblivious to the danger. We were told of the near misses several days after. No one wanted to worry us.
The purpose of the trip was to review the construction progress and quality — as well as to provide some insight into the enormous logistics and mobilization task associated with rebuilding a road through the wilderness.
By any measure, the efforts made to build this huge road in just two years were impressive. Just to give you an idea: Since Afghanistan is a land-locked country, it takes typically 3-4 months to deliver road construction equipment to a seaport in Pakistan. From there, it has to be shipped by rail and truck into Afghanistan.
En route, one must deal with corrupt border police and village police as well as armed gangs. Once the equipment reaches the job site, a camp must be established to house and feed 500 men.
Most of the supplies must also be imported, because Afghanistan's infrastructure — however modest it was before the Russians invaded in 1979 — is virtually nonexistent.
Even many of the workers are imported, due to the high illiteracy rate and lack of skills here. Thousands of bitumen (tar) barrels come from Pakistan or Iran.
They are often opened primitively by hacking the tops off with axes, heated and mixed with various sizes of gravel to form asphalt. The hot asphalt is then laid onto the roadbed.
It is a long, hot, rather tedious process. Meanwhile, the workers are regularly fired upon. Over 50 workers have already lost their lives in the construction of this road.
As we drove down the road, it was like being transported back into time. Small walled villages of mud brick homes nestled among dead trees in a parched landscape would roll into view, lying at the foot of craggy mountains devoid of vegetation.
Children would be seen tending camels or sheep. Men would be seen sitting on their haunches outside the wall or barefoot on carpets in little stalls along the road.
Women would rarely be seen. This is a very conservative area of Afghanistan. Sometimes, we would see clusters of black or brown nomadic tents. Here the women would wander freely, dressed in long, very colorful gowns.
Riverbeds and terraced fields were often seen, but the overwhelming majority of them were bone-dry after a seven-year drought.
It was as if the land had been cursed — notwithstanding a brilliant blue sky. We would also pass open bazaars along the road.
These would be huge gatherings of hundreds of people milling around little stands set up here and there. Everything was traded at the bazaars — from car parts to fruits and vegetables to heroin. It appeared from the road to be quite chaotic and disorganized.
At sunset, we reached our destination, the U.S. Kandahar Air Base, where we have a major concentration of U.S. and coalition troops. This air base was the site of the Taliban's last stand — and there were still remnants of a powerful struggle.
The base was very well organized, with a few touches of home, including a Pizza Hut trailer and Burger King trailer. The lines were long for both. We ate well that night—believe it or not, lobster was on the menu and we had our fill.
The following morning we embarked on the most dangerous part of our journey — a 30-kilometer drive northward from Kandahar toward the city of Tirin Kot.
The Taliban — including their leader, Mullah Omar — came to power in Kandahar. After the war, there were still many rebel remnants between Kandahar and Tirin Kot.
Our bodyguards were on maximum alert. The convoy was increased from 14 vehicles to 20 vehicles — the additional vehicles all filled with "shooters."
We drove slowly along an unpaved, but graded road. Suddenly, two of the vehicles had flat tires. We waited a few minutes — and then the decision was made to keep moving and repair the vehicles later. The risk for ambush was too high.
In several hours, we reached our destination, "Forward Operating Base Tiger." This is a small military fort set on a hill overlooking a truly desolate landscape.
Inside are 130 civil engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers and 40 artillery soldiers to protect them while they construct the road.
If there is an Afghanistan equivalent to Fort Apache, it must be Firebase Tiger. Shortly after we arrived, our bodyguards were told that just yesterday one of the base's vehicles had been attacked by a group of four Taliban with rocket launchers.
They were not very accurate — and the U.S. soldiers' return of fire eliminated the threat.
Now our security detail was really paranoid — every man, woman and child along the 30-kilometer drive knew of our 20 vehicle convoy. We were going to have to drive back down the same one-lane road.
This meant that for two hours, we would be "sitting ducks." The tension was palpable. Our drivers drove aggressively and defensively.
Meanwhile, I decided that since the most dangerous act anyone could do was to give me a gun, it would be better if I shot with my camera instead. That I did.
I also waved to every single person I saw. Thank goodness, most waved back Occasionally, an unsmiling young man would look at us and turn his thumb down. That was disquieting.
Suddenly, a truck full of men came roaring down from a sand dune. I thought to myself—this is it. Fortunately, when they saw the show of force, they braked and drove away from our convoy.
We returned to Kandahar Air Base, had an uneventful lunch — and then flew back to Kabul. Two very exciting days that I will never forget.