President Bush and other officials of his administration Tuesday celebrated the ceremonial reopening of the newly-renovated Kabul-to-Kandahar highway in Afghanistan. The nearly 500-kilometer roadway project funded by the United States and Japan is the centerpiece of Afghan reconstruction efforts.
The highway project, begun more than a year ago, was slowed by supply and logistical problems and by attacks on road workers and mine-clearing teams attributed to supporters of the ousted Taliban regime.
But the $200 million paving operation was completed, as U.S. aid officials had promised, before the end of the year, and marked by a formal ceremony south of Kabul.
In a written statement, President Bush paid tribute to engineers and laborers from many countries, who he said worked tirelessly on the road, often in the face of hardship and danger.
Mr. Bush the achievement underscores the "firm commitment" of the United States and other coalition members to support the Afghan people as they build a democratic stable and thriving Afghanistan.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the reopening of the highway linking Afghanistan's two biggest cities is a "keystone event" in the rebuilding of the country.
"Thirty-five per cent of Afghanistan's population live within 50 kilometers of this road," he said. "This road cuts the trip from Kabul to Kandahar from two days to about five hours. Because of the road's importance, President Bush made a commitment to President Karzai and the people of Afghanistan that the highway would be completed by the end of this year. The President's goal has been met."
Originally built four decades ago with U.S. funding, the highway was reduced to a pot-holed ruin by years of conflict, and had to be cleared of more than a thousand mines and unexploded shells before paving operations could begin.
The rebuilt road now has at least one layer of new asphalt pavement its entire 482-kilometer length and additional paving, signing and marking are planned next year.
The Kabul to Kandahar stretch is the first link of what is to be an internationally funded ring road circling the heart of the country and connecting major Afghan population centers.
Work on the somewhat-longer Kandahar-to-Herat section of the ring will begin next spring and is due for completion in 2006.
The road is the most expensive single project in a U.S. aid program for Afghanistan of nearly $2 billion in the last two years. Congress recently approved another $1.2 billion in reconstruction funds.