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Battle line

Roads AFGHANISTAN

Engineers upgrading Afghanistan's Kabul to Kandahar road from rutted track to modern highway need nerves of steel, discovers Sean Cronin.

The email from contractor Louis Berger's office in Kabul, Afghanistan, is short and to the point.

'We will make the chopper available at 06.30. Have the journalist at the airport no later than 06.15. It will take him down to Kandahar, fuel and return to Kabul. Because of the possibility of ground fire, it will stay above 3,000 feet. Have him sign the waiver as soon as he is prepared.'

Welcome to what is perhaps the world's most dangerous construction site.

More than two years after the fall of the Taliban, the 482km Kabul-Kandahar highway is the most high profile reconstruction project in the war-battered country.

Financed by US money and project managed by US firm Louis Berger, there has been immense political pressure from Washington to ensure that it opens on time. Nothing has been allowed to compromise the almost unbelievably tight construction timetable, including ambushes, rocket-propelled grenade attacks, mine explosions, kidnappings and killings.

Such unflinching pursuit of the project comes at a cost: the US Agency for International Development's initial $250M estimate of project cost is likely to be nearer $800M as a result of massive security-related spending and transport costs.

At Berger's main project base camp at Ghazni, scores of Kalashnikov-toting guards patrol the barren aircraft landing strip. Louis Berger has had serious problems with some local ex-Mujahideen commanders who have demanded that their own men be hired as guards, says pilot Gordon Nelich. There have been several stand-offs between rival groups which threatened to turn into full-scale gun battles.

Along the route of the road 1,200 armed guards protect the site - roughly one for every construction worker. It is an open secret that many are former Taliban.

Louis Berger also employs a team of security managers, all ex-US military, on a $15,000 a month basic salary. They perform the role of quasi-diplomats, ensuring that men supplied by one warlord do not end up in territory controlled by another.

From the air, the most striking thing about the road is the almost complete absence of traffic. While president Mohammed Karzai and the US administration have made much of the benefits that the new highway will bring to Afghanistan, the fact remains that few people are actually willing to risk their lives travelling on it. This includes the Berger engineers building it, who prefer the relative safety of the company chopper.

Since work started in September 2002, seven people have been killed in ambushes, four have been kidnapped, and scores of workers have been attacked.

The dangers involved with working on this job have been experienced at the highest level.

While driving along a section of the road close to Kandahar last October, roads superintendent Mike Bois and fellow engineer Fred Chace were ambushed by two suspected Taliban gunmen, who opened fire on their vehicle with a high calibre machine gun.

While trying to reverse out of the ambush Chace was hit in the head.

Miraculously, he survived, with the bullet tearing a gash across the top of his skull. The fact Bois and Chace are still involved in the project says all that is needed about their mental toughness. 'If you can't deal with Afghanistan then you go home, ' Bois states.

Engineers are also confronting huge logistical and environmental challenges: Project manager Jim Myers has had to cope with fuel delivery delays at the Pakistan border, while in early December the foundations of a bridge under construction were washed away by a flash flood.

Yet nothing is being allowed to get in the way of the road opening on time. It represents a thin black line of hope in a country where law and order is a distant memory for even elderly Afghans.

Indeed, with just days to go before the opening of the Ghazni section, Myers was told completion had to be brought forward by a week to accommodate an incoming US political delegation. He immediately rushed off to meet the Afghan Minister for Public Works to scout a location safe enough for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. He does not look like a ribbon-cutting kind of guy.

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