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 last week that hauled a huge liquefied-gas tank and 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 between the country's two most important cities 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 U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. government aid agency, financed the original reconstruction of the highway after the fall of the Taliban, a project that was completed in 2005, and it oversees its maintenance. According to the agency, six of the 24 causeways have been damaged by homemade bombs, and 85 of 1,866 culverts have been blown up.
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 some 12 hours.
Repairs are urgently needed, and last week the USAID awarded a contract for rebuilding nine bridges to The Louis Berger Group, a U.S. company that will use Afghan firms as subcontractors. Since that contracting process began, however, three more bridges have been blown up.
The attack Dad witnessed occurred in midafternoon last Thursday as a NATO supply convoy passed through a village between the Gilan and Moqur districts. Insurgents detonated a roadside bomb and then fired machine guns and rockets from both sides of the road, apparently firing from the roofs of houses, Dad said.
Dad, who spoke to McClatchy after he arrived in Maidan Shahr, just outside Kabul, was only one of the travelers who came within an inch of losing his life that day.
Shahbarat, an 18-year-old driver's assistant who like many Afghans goes by one name, was in a NATO supply convoy when it came under attack, though it wasn't clear whether it was the same one that Dad saw. Armed Afghan private-security guards accompanied the convoy.
"We could see the firing, about 12 trucks ahead, but we couldn't see the Taliban," Shahbarat said. The private security guards "were just firing back indiscriminately into the village."
Shahbarat, who said this was the fourth such attack he'd experienced over the last year, thought that several of the guards for his convoy had been killed or injured, a number of trucks destroyed and two drivers kidnapped.
Ghazni provincial authorities and the International Security Assistance Force said that two attacks had taken place but neither had a record of casualties.
"We have reports of two separate attacks on convoys taking place on 24 June in Ghazni," said Lt. Cmdr. Iain Baxter, a spokesman for the coalition force. "According to our reports, there were no injuries or damages resulting from these attacks."
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, Shahbarat said.
"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'd always let him go, as he didn'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."
Drivers say that only a handful of bridges remain, though the USAID said there were 45 bridges on the road.
Maintenance is contracted out to The Louis Berger Group, which specializes in road construction in Third World locations and rebuilt the highway earlier this decade. Its subcontractors — all Afghan companies — have been attacked regularly, and at least 10 employees have been killed.
It's unclear whether the Taliban are behind all the attacks, and there have been suggestions that criminal gangs who haven't been paid off by security firms are involved in some of the violence, though the distinction between insurgent and gangster is blurred.
"To my understanding, this is the most dangerous part of the road network in Afghanistan," said Rick Broadhead, an engineer for the USAID in Kabul. "It's a very important road strategically and economically. Lots of goods are driven along the road. It is the political connection between Kabul and Kandahar, with lots of important cities along it."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
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