By Afzal Khan
Washington File Special Correspondent
Washington -- The reconstruction of Afghanistan marks an important milestone December 16 with the official reopening of the 482-kilometer stretch of highway connecting the capital Kabul with the main southern city, Kandahar.
The dedication ceremony will be attended by Afghanistan's Interim President Hamid Karzai, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios.
The Kabul-Kandahar highway is a key portion of Afghanistan's "Ring Road" that provides the lifeline that connects its principal cities in an arc from the north in Kabul to the south in Kandahar and then west to Herat. The refurbished Kabul-Kandahar highway will cut the travel time between the two cities from two days to just five hours. This will benefit 35 percent of Afghanistan's 20-million population, who live within 50 kilometers of the highway.
The reconstruction project began in September 2002 when USAID awarded the contract to the Louis Berger Group (LBG), a New Jersey-based construction firm that has offices in some 20 countries.
Thomas Nicastro, a former U.S. foreign service officer and now an LBG vice president who oversees its work in Afghanistan, said in an interview in Washington on December 10 that work on the project accelerated in March 2003 after it got a blanket provision to complete the Kabul-Kandahar highway with a target set for the end of December 2003.
"Sometime in March-April we awarded four joint-venture contracts to one Indian and three Turkish companies to rehabilitate the road by the end of December. Earlier, President Bush had asked USAID to perform that task and we accepted the challenge," he said.
Nicastro said that in order to meet the December deadline they had to fly in almost everything required for the project except for rocks. Construction equipment, and even asphalt and bitumen had to be flown in, he said.
"Weather was not a big factor, it was mobilization. We had to get everything here from outside," he said.
But security was another big concern. Nicastro said that six Afghan Interior Ministry guards were killed last August in a Taliban attack on their outpost. In October, an American engineer and an Afghan colleague were shot and wounded when they were ambushed at a roadblock. He said that the Afghan Interior Ministry supplied 1,000 guards to patrol the highway. LBG paid them an additional $5 a day as food allowance.
In addition, Afghans working to de-mine the area were frequently beaten up by Taliban supporters.
"Not only the road has to be free from mines, but also areas on its shoulders up to 30 meters away and also in sites where the construction workers have their camps. So far, we have removed a thousand pieces of ordnance such as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines," he said.
Specifically, the first phase has involved laying a ten-centimeter thick and seven-meter wide asphalt-treated base with provisional striping to create two lanes and some essential drainage work.
Nicastro said the highway has become "a symbol of national unity." At the same time, the highway is already beginning to pay economic dividends with transportation costs going down by as much as "two-thirds," he said.
Nicastro said that phase two, which will begin in the spring and be completed by October 2004, will entail construction or repair of culverts and bridges, completion of the highway shoulders, add additional layers of asphalt, and put permanent striping and signs on the highway.
Nicastro said that so far the construction cost has run to $231 million, including the cost of bridges, and the average cost per kilometer of highway was around $600,000. Nicastro said that some 2,000 Afghan laborers and semi-skilled workers worked on the project aided by some 500 Turks and Indians who operated most of the heavy machinery.
LBG's next project will involve rehabilitation of the 566-kilometer Kandahar to Herat highway that was constructed in the 1960s by the Soviets. LBG has invited subcontracts on this project by the end of January 2004. Work is expected to begin in the spring with the completion date slated for September 2005.
Nicastro said the work on the Kandahar-Herat highway would be different because of the concrete base. He said the Soviets had laid huge 7-meter by 10-meter concrete blocks which over the years have buckled at points where they join each other.
"We will have to crack and seal them, putting asphalt-treated base on top," he explained.
Already survey and design work is in progress for this highway, Nicastro said. Japan is expected to build a 110-kilometer stretch of the road and Saudi Arabia another 50 kilometers. The remaining part of the highway will be built by LBG under the USAID contract.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)