Vital Afghan highway is under siege
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- Under relentless siege by Taliban insurgents, the crucial road that links the country's most important cities, Kabul and Kandahar, has become one of the most dangerous highways in Afghanistan -- if not on the planet -...
MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- Under relentless siege by Taliban insurgents, the crucial road that links the country's most important cities, Kabul and Kandahar, has become one of the most dangerous highways in Afghanistan -- if not on the planet -- over the past year.
Insurgents have blown up a dozen bridges, six causeways and 85 culverts, according to U.S. officials. There were nearly 300 attacks on the road in a recent five-week period, mostly on armed convoys that were carrying goods for NATO forces. The Taliban have set up checkpoints to demonstrate their control of the highway.
Allah Dad, a 52-year-old native of Herat, was driving a truck hauling a huge liquefied-gas tank on June 24. He was starting to overtake a NATO convoy in Ghazni province, about a third of the way from Kandahar to Kabul, when an ambush erupted as he entered a village.
"I jumped out of the truck -- the engine was still running -- and hid under a bridge," he said. "I feared that if the tanker was hit by a rocket, the whole area would be obliterated."
In fact, several rockets flew over his truck, said Dad, who's been a driver for 33 years. He pointed out marks on the vehicle from bullets that had struck the door in several places, cut through external electrical cables, punched a hole in his reserve fuel canister and bounced off the tank, which holds the several tons of liquefied gas at high pressure. Picking a crushed bullet out of the door frame, Dad said the shooting had lasted about an hour and a half.
The Kabul-Kandahar highway, part of the ring road that links Afghanistan's major cities, is a symbol of the American commitment to encourage commerce and put the country on its feet. The U.S. spent $1 billion to rebuild the ring road, and an estimated
35 percent of the country's population lives within 30 miles of the Kabul-Kandahar stretch.
Today, the inability to safeguard the commercial lifeline is symptomatic of the broader security crisis in Afghanistan as a deepening insurgency endangers the Obama administration's plans to start withdrawing troops in the middle of next year.
The road also functions as a vital military supply route, as the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force prepares a major operation later this year to secure Kandahar province.
The International Security Assistance Force said there were about
90 improvised-bomb strikes, 120 bombs found and 290 armed attacks on the highway from May 6 to June 10.
The destruction of bridges and culverts on the highway forces drivers onto dirt byways, turning what had been a five-hour trip when the road was built into one of about 12 hours.
Anywhere else in the world, the road would be deserted, but as many as 7,000 drivers take their lives in their hands daily to traverse its 290 miles. For one thing, there's no other practical land route between the major cities. A second reason is that it pays: Carrying NATO supplies is compellingly lucrative. Driving NATO supplies between Kandahar and Kabul can net a truck owner the equivalent of $4,000, said a driver who uses the name Shahbarat.
"There's money in this, but it is risky. If we took private materials, we wouldn't be paid enough to make it worthwhile," he said.
Dad, who didn't own his own vehicle, was getting only $150 to drive all the way from Herat through Kandahar to Kabul.
The Taliban regularly stop and search his truck at temporary checkpoints on the road, he said, but they always let him go because he doesn't carry NATO supplies.
"I wouldn't carry American goods. It's too risky," Dad said. "The Taliban say that those who are serving the infidels are even worse than the infidels and should be killed first. They don't even allow the families of those drivers to hold funerals."