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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 reestablished itself, ' Mitchener wrote.

Such was the scene that greeted Louis Berger when the contractor was appointed by the US Agency for International Development 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.

To meet the almost impossible construction schedule, 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 another 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 and graded to meet US highways specifications. There are eight asphalt plants along the route, 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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