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Ghost highway

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. 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 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 (USAID) initial £135M estimate of project cost is likely to be nearer £430M as a result of massive securityrelated 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 exMujahideen commanders who have demanded 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 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 £8,000 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 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 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.

Rewriting the rules

When James A Mitchener wrote about the Kabul-Kandahar highway in his epic novel Caravans, he could hardly have imagined that the dilapidated dirt track of 1946 would be so little changed more than half a century later.

'The potholes were so deep that we could travel at no more than twenty, and wherever water had seeped under the rocks, the entire roadbed vanished and we had to set out across rutted fields until the antique roadway re-established itself, ' Mitchener wrote.

Such was the scene that greeted Louis Berger when the contractor was appointed by USAID to manage the rebuilding of the highway in 2002. Indeed, in the survey conducted before work started, travel time between the two cities was recorded as around 20km/h.

Like Mitchener's novel, the story of the project has been one of risk-taking, political intrigue and life and death situations for the Louis Berger engineers and the contractors.

Work has been divided into five packages, which were competitively bid and awarded to Turkish, Indian and one Afghan-American contractor.

However, almost immediately contracts were redrawn in the face of the increasing logistical problems.

'We started having to take work from one contractor and giving it to another because one was performing and was not. Every week, we were changing contracts and seeing who was the best at doing what, ' says roads superintendent Mike Bois.

Indian joint venture contractor BSC/C&C got off to a particularly bad start, becoming the first victim of the deteriorating political relationship between India and neighbouring Pakistan.

Pakistan refused the contractor permission to transit the country and enter by road through the Torkham border post, so the firm was forced to import the machinery via Iran, leading to a six week delay.

After this, it was decided to launch a massive air operation to fly in all the heavy equipment, which the project manager Jim Myers likens to the Berlin Airlift.

'Mobilisation was the biggest single problem so we took everything in by air. Picture bringing in all the asphalt plants, paving equipment and crushing units on a plane, ' says Bois.

Delays were compounded by problems in securing bitumen deliveries. 'We had the plants up but we didn't have any bitumen to put in them because we couldn't get it out of Pakistan.' Berger responded by importing 2,500t of bitumen itself, which was distributed to whichever contractor was ready to use it, irrespective of what their contracts said.

Aggregate has been sourced from local riverbeds, screened to grade it to meet US highways specifications. There are eight asphalt plants located along the highway, the smallest of which has a capacity of 50t/h while the largest can cope with 180t/h.

First phase of the project was completed on 16 December 2003, with at least one layer of asphalt laid over every part of the route. Second phase starts this spring and when finished in late 2004 the highway will have a paved surface 7m wide with 2.5m shoulders and an asphalt concrete depth of 200mm to 300mm.

Around 2.3Mt of aggregate and 108,000t of bitumen will have gone into its construction.

Travel time between the two cities will reduce from two days to just four or five hours.

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