KHOST, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Spend 30 minutes talking to a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan and chances are he or she will mention one factor as crucial to the stability of the country: roads.
Geographically challenging, with vast desert plains to the south and soaring mountains in the Hindu Kush to the north and east, Afghanistan is remarkably devoid of proper roads given its size and a population approaching 30 million.
There are just 34,000 km (21,000 miles) of useable roadway in the country, of which less than a quarter is paved, according to the CIA World Factbook. By comparison, there are about 10 million km of paved roads in the United States.
Better roads are essential not only for the economy -- so that farmers and merchants can get produce to markets more easily and importers can bring vital foodstuffs into the landlocked country -- but also for security, since police and the army can get more quickly to remote, unstable areas.
Paved roads also make it much harder for the Taliban to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- nearly 750 of which detonated across Afghanistan last year, causing hundreds of deaths. Planting them on pot-holed, dirt tracks is easy.
“I can’t tell you how important roads are,” said Colonel Pete Johnson, the commander of U.S. forces in southeast Afghanistan, where development lags central and northern areas and paved roads are minimal.
“If we pave roads, there’s almost an automatic shift of IEDs to other areas because it makes it so much more difficult for the enemy to emplace them ... Roads here mean security,” he told Reuters in an interview last week.
About the only people more insistent than the Americans about the importance of roads are the Afghans themselves, fed up with vehicle-destroying 12-hour journeys to the next major city when a paved road might get them there in under three.
And yet, six years after the United States overthrew the Taliban, comparatively little appears to have been done to improve the network, especially considering how much money has been thrown at it and how important everyone agrees it is.
Since 2002, USAID, the organisation through which the U.S. government channels the vast majority of its aid to Afghanistan, has spent $1 billion building 1,700 km of new paved road. Security, “capacity building” and overheads have accounted for nearly a quarter of the cost, according to a USAID official.
The construction works out at $580,000 per km, and with at least two of USAID’s upcoming projects the cost will approach $1 million per km, according to the group’s own figures. By comparison, the U.S. army corps of engineers budgets $250,000 per km for building paved roads.
Part of the reason for the high price tag is the cost of security, but also the tiered nature of the projects -- USAID subcontracts a major foreign company to do the work, which subcontracts part of it, often to an Indian or Turkish company, which subcontracts local Afghan labour to dig and lay the road.
The contract-awarding process takes time, as does design and planning. The longer the delays, the longer Afghans, around 70 percent of whom are unemployed, remain out of work.
A programme on Afghan TV jokes about the poor quality of the new roads, but then points out that perhaps foreign contractors do it on purpose -- if the roads need mending soon after they are built, more Afghans will end up with jobs.
The latest, much-awaited project is to build a 101 km road from Khost, in southeastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, to Gardez, a city southeast of Kabul, where the road will meet up with the already-paved Kabul-Gardez road.
The project is crucial because Khost, often isolated in winter, will become a key transit point for imports from Pakistan, and occasional exports from Afghanistan, greatly shortening the journey time for international trade.
The $98 million project, due for completion in October 2009, was due to kick off this month. But Louis Berger, the American company subcontracted by USAID to do the work, did not turn up to a meeting with local Afghan officials to inaugurate the road because it did not have sufficient notice to plan security.
USAID said the meeting was rescheduled and took place on May 11. Work has still not begun, but Afghans in the area, many of whom are prepared to work for as little as $3 a day, are excited about the prospect of long-term employment.
“The contractor is currently mobilising equipment and resources to the site,” a USAID official said of the project.