On Afghanistan's road to somewhere, Taliban block the way

McClatchy NewspapersJune 19, 2009 

QALA-I-NAW, Afghanistan — The wells are dry and there's no electricity in Badghis, the poorest province in the poorest country in Asia, but despite its appearance of an arid, unforgiving moonscape in the middle of nowhere, there's a flicker of hope.

If the United States, China, the Asian Development Bank and NATO complete the job, Badghis soon will become a major stop on one of the most important highways in Asia. It's the last link in Afghanistan's national "ring road," and it'll connect China with Central Asia and Central Asia with Iranian seaports. What stands in the way, however, is the Taliban, who've expanded their presence and are attacking road workers

The final link will replace some 200 miles of dirt track, but as attacks on road workers have increased and U.S.-led NATO offensives have failed to pacify the region, residents doubt that it will ever be completed.

"Promises have been given and most all of them have been broken," said Monshi Ramazan, the embittered head of the Badghis Provincial Council. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks on government and NATO forces are up by 300 percent in the last three years.

Halima Ralipaima, the head of Badghis' Women's Affairs Department, said she'd been unable to travel in the province for two years and that the Taliban now were kidnapping her workers and holding them hostage. She said the Taliban were threatening to destroy even small educational gains for girls made since late 2001.

The delays in completing the road have led Western analysts and NATO officials to warn that the Taliban are gaining steady support across Badghis. Once it was far removed from the fighting, but today Badghis is a new insurgent base and the Taliban's "gateway to the north," the same route to conquest that the insurgents took in the late 1990s when they seized control of north Afghanistan.

An estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Taliban fighters now lie in wait for Chinese and Afghan road workers, a threat that NATO and the U.S. military are taking seriously.

"Security in Afghanistan is ultimately defined by our ability to build and defend the ring road," said Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, the American general who's in charge of operations for NATO.

Last September, after five months on the job, said Tucker, 55, of Charlotte, N.C., he realized that "we had given the highways away to the enemy" in Afghanistan. "I was shocked," he told McClatchy in an interview.

He found that out the hard way when he asked for air support in northwest Afghanistan from the massive NATO and U.S. base in Kandahar and was told that the requested helicopters were needed for resupply operations in the Taliban-plagued south. "I told them that they should resupply by vehicle, and the answer back was that we don't control the roads," Tucker said.

"That is what happens when you are running around trying to kill the enemy in a zero sum game and you don't have enough troops," he said.

Tucker, who assumes command of the U.S. Army's Korean front this summer, said that this "revelation" led him to the belief that "we had to wrestle the highways back from the enemy."

He assigned NATO and Afghan units to secure the ring road, particularly the hard-hit stretch between Kabul and Kandahar. According to NATO's statistics, ring road attacks on Afghan truckers dropped 53 percent from January to May this year and truck volume rose by 61 percent over a year ago.

The 1,900-mile ring road — the country's main roadway, intended to link its largest cities — was begun in the 1960s with U.S. aid financing parts of the project, and Soviet Russia building other parts. The Soviet invasion in 1979 and the resistance by Afghan fighters prevented its completion, however, and flash floods and harsh winters degraded what had been built. Since 2001, international development groups have devoted some $3 billion to rebuilding and expanding the country's road network.

The Taliban have a different goal: to expel NATO and overthrow the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai, and a road that can carry military as well as civilian traffic is a logical target.

U.S. special forces and NATO troops launched a limited offensive across Badghis in May, but in the intense fighting, the balance has tipped in the wrong direction. According to Western intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't have permission to talk to journalists, Badghis residents have moved to the Taliban's side.

"Mistakes have been made," Tucker said. "Foreigners have arrived to finish the road, and that has caught the ire of the locals." Afghans across the country have complained in recent years of massive international-development schemes that pay foreign "experts" and corrupt officials in Kabul millions but don't integrate the local population into the work.

However, few contractors — even Afghans — will dare accept an assignment as dangerous as completing the ring road. In fact, the state-owned China Railway Corp. has halted work on the road 11 times in the past 30 months because of killings, kidnappings and attacks on its workers. Chen Zhe, the company's planning manager from Shanghai, said, however, that his group was determined to finish the work. He said that the road had prized economic value for his country because it would link China and Central Asia, through Afghanistan, to the ports of Iran.

"This is not a road to nowhere," said Craig Steffensen, the director of the Asian Development Bank in Afghanistan, which has invested $900 million in this project alone.

"It's central to Afghanistan's efforts as a landlocked country to become a hub for trade and commerce in the sub-region, and to expand economic ties between Central and South Asia." Steffensen, who's from Alexandria, Va., asked a group of skeptical Afghan elders in long gray beards for their help in completing the road. He said after the meeting that the engineers with the China Railway Corp. were "the only ones" who were willing to accept the dangerous work.

"Nobody had explained this to me before, but I think I've learned now that every day this road is not moving forward is another day that the Taliban and the criminal elements think they've won," he said after meeting for several hours with the elders in Badghis.

If the road is ever completed, it will have to be strong-armed past the Taliban. Kidnappings and attacks on workers convinced Steffensen earlier this year that the Asian Development Bank should hire a special force of 500 Afghan police officers, ethnic Uzbeks from neighboring Faryab province. Their task: to push, in parallel with road construction, through Badghis province along a route that now takes two days to transit while constantly skirting rocket attacks.

Increasingly, U.S. and NATO commanders in Afghanistan are trying to use special Afghan protection forces to counter the Taliban's coercion of the local population. Tucker said that if such protection forces succeeded, it would be a real "game changer" throughout Afghanistan.

Pointing to a map of the province, Tucker explained how NATO and the road crews plan to outflank the Taliban in Badghis province. Rather than pass north to south through the embattled Murghab Valley, where NATO intelligence officials estimate that more than 1,000 Taliban fighters have massed, road crews and security forces will swing farther north toward the border with Turkmenistan and cut a swath through an unpopulated desert area instead of through the most populous district of Badghis.

"We can't go down the Murghab Valley right now, so we are going to go here," Tucker said, running a finger along Afghanistan's border with Turkmenistan. "In that valley, it is just too easy for the Taliban to attack the road because it runs through a large canyon. You can have two Taliban fighters on a motorcycle and they can disrupt" everything.

The decision to circumvent the Taliban threat — which the newly appointed governor of the province, Dilbarjan Arman, supports — flies in the face of conventional counterinsurgency theory, which says that pacifying the local population through economic development is a key to victory. In other provinces, roads through population centers have helped lead to prosperity and limiting the Taliban.

Development assistance officials in the region fear that bypassing a major population center in Badghis could incite more local resentment and yet more violence.

Some NATO countries favor sitting down with the Taliban leadership in northwestern Afghanistan as the best way to finish the road in good time. Tucker said, however, that with money and orders directly from Mullah Omar, the cleric who heads Afghanistan's Taliban, insurgents were only looking to hold the project hostage. He confirmed that several hundred fresh U.S. troops will be deployed to Badghis in September in addition to a battalion of Afghan National Army troops to help the Chinese engineers and their Afghan road crews complete the road as soon as possible.

(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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