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Taliban Cut Off Afghan Highway Linking Kabul to Northern Gateways

Taliban insurgents have cut the main highway that links the capital with northern Afghanistan and neighboring countries for the past three days, according to Afghan officials in the area.

After the Taliban ambushed police forces guarding a stretch of the national Ring Road in Baghlan Province on Thursday, fighting continued through Saturday and appeared likely to last longer, according to officials in the area. The northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif was cut off, as were road connections to eight northern provinces.

It was only the latest setback for the country's battered Ring Road, a highway network over 2,000 miles long built by international donors at a cost of $3 billion, and still not complete after more than a decade of work. Parts of it remain unfinished, other sections have repeatedly fallen under insurgent control, and on much of its length, only heavily armed military convoys can travel safely because of the risk of insurgent roadblocks and bombings.

President Ashraf Ghani hailed the Ring Road network as vital to his vision of making landlocked Afghanistan the "hub" of Central Asia. It would provide the only reliable road connections between India and Pakistan, as well as nations like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, which in turn would link the region with Russia and Turkey.

Now traffic is mostly stalled on one of the country's busiest stretches of highway, the section of the Ring Road between Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif, an important economic center and gateway for travel to Uzbekistan.

Mubarez Hazara, an Afghan Local Police commander in the Surkh Kotal area of Baghlan Province, said by telephone that he and his 40 fighters were surrounded by Taliban insurgents. The insurgents had overrun a check post on the highway and remained entrenched and blocking traffic.

"This is the third day of fighting," Mr. Hazara said. "They attacked us from four directions and stopped after they lost some of their men, so they surrounded us for two or three days, and we didn't get any support, not even water and food."

Mr. Hazara said the road was currently under Taliban control, and while the insurgents were letting some traffic through, they were systematically searching for government officials or sympathizers. "They search cars and drag out people who work for the government," he said.

The Ring Road connects most of the country's major population centers. According to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, the road network is the second-biggest recipient of foreign development aid in Afghanistan.

Soon after Mr. Ghani took office in 2014, he ordered that work be rushed to complete the last section of road, a 135-mile stretch in western Badghis Province, but disputes between the government and contractors have stalled that work.

The special inspector general has raised questions about the financial capacity of the Afghan government to maintain the road. Many parts of the highway have already degraded — even returning to little more than dirt roads in places — because of poor maintenance, use by overweight trucks and military vehicles, and damage from roadside bombs.

The road was originally built at an average cost of $3.5 million per mile, more than 12 times the normal cost of road-building in Afghanistan, mostly because of the heavy security costs of protecting foreign contractors. Security on one 64-mile stretch from Gardez to Khost cost more than $45 million. (That road was completed about five months ago, but the ceremony inaugurating it was held in Kabul because of security concerns).

Many of the newly built roads already need repairs, said Ahmad Shah Wahid, the country's former minister of public works, who oversaw the project during his time in office.

"The government has not provided adequate maintenance and protection," he said. "If it goes on like this and the roads don't get maintenance, we won't have any roads 10 years from now."

The condition of the Ring Road has taken a back seat to concerns about security on them, with the attack in Baghlan one of the boldest of efforts by the Taliban to sever traffic, but hardly the only one.

Earlier this month, insurgents launched heavy attacks on security check posts along the Ring Road between Greshk and Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province, overrunning three police positions and killing 15 police officers, and taking six officers prisoner. That again cut the strategic stretch linking Kandahar, the biggest southern city, with Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province.

For months, the stretch of Ring Road linking Kandahar and Kabul has been subject to regular Taliban ambushes and so-called flying check posts, making travel dangerous except under heavy guard, for most of the distance. Only the short stretch between Kabul and Wardak Province is passable regularly.

The highway has also been shut down by insurgent ambushes in northern Jowzjan and Faryab Provinces, in western Farah Province and along stretches in Kunduz and Oruzgan Provinces, according to local officials and the police in those areas.

Recently, even the main highway from Kabul to the Torkhum border crossing with Pakistan has been occasionally shut down by Taliban ambushes.

When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban, there were little more than 30 miles of paved highways, largely the result of protracted warfare, despite decades of road building projects by both the Americans and the Soviets dating back to the 1950s.

Paving the Ring Road section between Kabul and Kandahar, a stretch also known as Highway 1, reduced the travel time between those cities to 10 to 12 hours from two or three days. Warfare and ambushes, as well as degradation of the road, have more than reversed that.

Haji Mahbob Agha, a truck driver, says a round trip on that stretch now takes 10 days. "It's not just one or two problems but many problems," he said. "I'm either robbed, or stopped by armed people, or blocked by fighting. There's no benefit to this work any more."

Lately, he said, he has been leaving his truck in a parking lot instead, and looking for safer work.

[Source: By Rod Nordland, The New York Times, Kabul, 14May16]

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small logoThis document has been published on 19May16 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.