Projects to Rebuild Afghan Roads Going Nowhere, Despite Promises

By Susan B. Glasser, The Washington Post, Wednesday 7 August 2002; Page A01

KABUL, Afghanistan—For months, the Asian Development Bank had promised that it would take on one of the biggest headaches in postwar Afghanistan: the cratered, agonizingly slow highway connecting Kabul with Kandahar. The project to rehabilitate the major artery between the country's two largest cities was estimated to cost $150 million, the largest single investment in Afghanistan's infrastructure since the collapse of Taliban rule last November.

Instead, the deal fell apart.

In meetings last month, the bank demanded that the Afghan government accept loans to finance the project. Frustrated with international donors that have promised to help rebuild the country, only to impose conditions the fledgling government cannot meet, the Afghans said no. They're pulling out, said a top aide to President Hamid Karzai. Their excuse is that we won't accept loans, but in reality it is too big a project for them.

The Kabul-Kandahar project is not the only road work stalled by the combination of balky donors, the slow pace of bureaucracy and the daunting logistics of accomplishing anything in a barely functioning country. In fact, not a single major road project has been started since the fall of the Taliban.

At a time when Karzai begins nearly every speech with a plea for money to rebuild Afghanistan's roads, when there are armies of unemployed men clamoring for just such work and when international donors are pledging billions of dollars in assistance, the absence of road improvements reflects a broader problem: Even the most basic of Afghanistan's many needs remain unaddressed.

Seemingly everywhere in Kabul these days, there are bustling U.N. offices and international aid groups flush with funds giving the impression that the rebuilding has begun. But Afghan officials say those appearances are deceiving. Although various nations pledged at a January conference in Tokyo $4.5 billion in aid over five years, most of that money has not been received. The funds that have arrived have gone largely for such short-term humanitarian programs as assisting refugees and feeding drought-stricken villages.

The country's roads and bridges, rendered all but impassable during two decades of war and neglect, sit untouched and are likely to remain that way for months, if not years.

Not this year, said one Western diplomat, shaking his head as he considered the stretch of road his government has pledged to help fix, but may never get to.

We are not in a position to start any project soon, said Salim Qayum, who runs the Asian Development Bank's program here and called the collapse of the Kabul-Kandahar highway deal a misunderstanding.

No one questions the urgent need to rehabilitate Afghanistan's roads. The smooth, paved highways built in the 1960s were once the pride of this landlocked country, linking Kabul with such far-off provincial capitals as Herat and Kandahar and speeding commerce with neighboring Iran and Pakistan. Today, traffic creeps along those highways, now littered with bomb craters and potholes bigger than many cars. According to statistics cited at a meeting in Washington last month, only 2,000 miles of road are paved in all of Afghanistan—and only 20 percent of that is in good shape.

It took two hours to reach Jalalabad in 1973. It takes eight hours now, Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, a World Bank veteran who has taken the lead in demanding cash from reluctant international donors, told reporters last week. We have been slowed down; the whole world is speeding up.

A recent trip by road from Kabul to Herat took 24 hours; it used to take 13 hours. On the way from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, nearly every bridge is washed out or destroyed.

For Karzai, such destruction serves as a visual reminder of how fragmented Afghanistan remains. Physically and politically divided into city-states, the country cannot reunite, he tells audiences, until there are highways to bring it back together.

Highways are very important for us politically. They interconnect the whole country. Even more importantly, they integrate us into the region and the world, said Karzai's aide. No matter who Karzai is talking to, roads are always a major priority.

At the same time, Karzai's inability to make progress on his priority has become another symbol of the president's impotence. After months of promises by the Western leaders who support Karzai, the Afghan president has made increasingly pointed demands in recent weeks. Six months, more or less, have gone by when we didn't accomplish much, said the Karzai adviser. Now, we have to deliver.

The U.S. aid program here is an example of what Karzai is up against. American officials say they have already spent their first $280 million in Afghan assistance—a program that included no major roads component. A new bill pledging an additional $1 billion-plus is making its way through Congress, but it, too, includes no significant funding for roads.

That could change, according to a senior diplomat here, who said the U.S. package would be adjusted to reflect Karzai's pleas for road construction. We want to add it to the mix, he said.

In the meantime, the U.S. assistance program here has concentrated on large donations to such U.N. operations as the World Food Program, combined with smaller-scale work being done by civil affairs teams of the U.S. military.

In the western city of Herat, work has begun on one project to improve road access to the nearby Iranian border at Islam Qala. But that project is being funded by the Iranian government. A U.S. Special Forces team based in the city said it did not have the mandate to do such work.

Overall, the U.S. military gave its humanitarian team in Herat $700,000 to spend; half of it went to a canal-desilting project. We spent all our money, one Special Forces soldier said, but none was spent on roads.

The European Community says it plans to commit between $60 million and $80 million to overhauling the Kabul-Jalalabad road, a rutted track over which hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned this year from Pakistan. But no one yet knows who will do the work or when it will begin. Several European countries have talked about adopting the Kabul-Jalalabad project and backed away. Which is it now? asked one international engineer working in Kabul. I can't keep track.

Several Afghan officials said the delays have been entirely predictable. People have unrealistic expectations, said Vice President Hedayat Amin Arsala, who served as finance minister during the first half of the year. They think if people promise something, the funds will flow right away. Of course that's not possible.

Arsala said that at the World Bank, where he used to work, it could take two years to get a project going, no matter how worthy. The problem is that ordinary Afghans do not understand this process, he said.

Or, as the Asian Development Bank's Qayum put it: The commitment made by the world in Tokyo is misunderstood by Afghans. They think that people will come here with sacks full of dollars.

Sitting in the Asian Development Bank's unfinished headquarters here, Qayum is eager to trace the reasons why his institution's road project has failed. He said it is all about unrealistic expectations—a misunderstanding about what is possible in Afghanistan and how quickly change can happen.

Qayum acknowledged that the bank had made a commitment to take the Kabul-Kandahar road, but said the project foundered last month over the terms of financing. He said the bank has $200 million available this year to spend on projects in Afghanistan. Of that, $150 million was to have been in loans for the road project and $50 million in grants from the Japanese government.

But the Afghans refused the loans, and the $50 million in grants cannot be spent outright on the Kabul-Kandahar project, he said, because the terms of the Japanese gift stipulate that it can be used only to improve secondary roads, not major highways.

Such seemingly arbitrary restrictions have made Afghan officials furious. How can they talk about secondary roads? fumed one senior government official. Everything here is a secondary road.

Qayum said the bank will go back to the Japanese government to see if a waiver is possible, but he is skeptical. Definitely nothing will happen in the current year, he said.

Even the bank's fallback plan—to help rebuild the rutted desert track that links Kandahar with the Pakistani border at Spin Boldak—is not likely to get anywhere fast. Of course, it takes time, he said. There are many reasons for being slow.