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New Highway Construction Starts in Afghanistan

A long-awaited and much needed project to rebuild a major highway system in Afghanistan is now underway. The highway reconstruction project will restore a key portion of Afghanistan's national highway system, which was destroyed by more than 20 years of war and neglect.

Heavy duty road grading equipment may be an all too common sight in most countries, and a source of inconvenience for drivers, forced to slow down and wait while it passes.

But, in Afghanistan, the sight of a road grader is a cause for celebration. It is a sign the country's roads are being repaired, and that one day, drivers may be able to speed along an asphalt highway to their destination, something that is a distant memory in Afghanistan.

Mohammed Nasir is a former farmer who is now a proud signalman for the road grader, stopping cars along Afghanistan's Highway One, between Kabul and Kandahar. Standing on a freshly graded stretch of road near the village of Durrani, about 40 kilometers south of Kabul, he says Afghanistan's shattered highway's are not only inconvenient, they are deadly. He says many Afghans die in accidents caused by bad roads.

Mohammed Nasir said drivers always stop for his signal, and many jump out of their cars to congratulate him, and tell him how happy they are Highway One is being rebuilt.

The stretch of road Mohammed Nasir works on is the first of 1,200 kilometers of Highway One to be rebuilt over the next three years. The project, linking Kabul, Kandahar and Herat is funded by the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia and is expected to cost $250 million. Craig Buck, the Director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Afghanistan program says the road project is critical for rebuilding Afghanistan.

"They (roads) are a unifying factor for this nation," he said. "What is needed to bind the provinces to the center, to promote commerce, to facilitate trade and so, getting the road system back in operation is absolutely critical."

Craig Buck says when Highway One is completed it will be able to handle 60 ton trucks. He says the road will be built to international standards, and will be better than the original road, known as the Eisenhower Highway, which was built by American engineers in the 1950s.

However, so far only about 20 kilometers of the road has been graded, and while construction is expected to pick up after the Afghan winter ends, Craig Buck says the danger of mines along the old highway means progress will be slow for some time.

"It is quite different, because we have to have de-miners go through and look not only on the road itself, but on the margins," he said. "And we have to 100 percent certainty that there are no mines so there will be no problem with our construction crews or with the people who will be transiting this road. Furthermore there is a lot of unexploded ordinance out there. There are a lot of wrecked military vehicles that have to be pulled away and taken off, so there is a lot of prior work that needs to go forward."

Craig Buck of U.S. AID says six bridges will also be rebuilt along the road and when the project is completed, the highway will be maintained by collecting tolls managed by a private company. Once the road is completed he says the 18 hours it now takes to drive between Kabul and Kandahar will be cut to four hours.

Back on Highway One just past Durrani, the villagers of Andar are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the road grader. Akhtar Gul a shopkeeper said the road passing by Andar was destroyed by Soviet invaders nearly 20 years ago, and ever since then he and his neighbors have been wating for it to be fixed.

Akhtar Gul said dust from the road ruins people's vegetable gardens and makes them sick. After 20 years of breathing dust, he and his neigbors are looking forward to the new road.

People along the road say the reconstruction project is long overdue. Even people who make a living from fixing the broken axles and flat tires that cause half the cars and trucks traveling on Highway One to break down say they too welcome the new road. Everyone it seems is tired of breathing dust.