The news that Pakistan has agreed to re-open supply routes to Afghanistan (1) after a seven month diplomatic standoff between Washington and Islamabad will not only ease the costs for the US and other NATO member states for their withdrawal plans. It also procures northern Afghanistan – namely its road system and population – some long hoped for relief, as supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan have put massive strain on the two essential routes from the north in the past months. Both have to pass through the – now dreaded – Salang Tunnel as the only way to reach Kabul, Bagram base and other destinations. Our guest blogger, Martin Gerner, (*) recently had the chance to travel this road.
When I wanted to take the road north to Mazar-e Sharif by car last week, I had been warned not to do so. Not so much because of security, but because the worrying news and tales kept flowing in, of the constantly growing number of fuel and cargo trucks converging from both directions on the Salang Tunnel, the bottleneck on the northern supply route for NATO. The foreign military are, of course, not the only users of the tunnel: the Salang is also on the main route for all Afghan civilian traffic. (There is only a much more difficult, and recently more dangerous, (2) route through Bamian over a number of passes one of which, tellingly, is called Dandan-Shekan, or the Breaker of Teeth.) Reports of people who travelled before us predicted unprecedented traffic jams with up to ten hours of waiting time before one would be able to enter the Salang tunnel.
Fortunately, in the end, I did not encounter this worst-case scenario, but some effects of the seven months US-Pakistani stalemate were still clearly visible. First and foremost, the endless chain of hundreds of trucks, most of them filled with petrol that one has to pass during every hour of the trip, make you realise the risk and possible outcome of a potential terrorist attack that could produce spectacular international headlines. This goes especially for the roughly two kilometres-long, main tunnel itself, in which trucks often get stuck temporarily. Apart from that, manoeuvring around the supply convoys lengthens the time taken to get to Mazar considerably. While it took up to seven hours before the US-Pakistani stalemate, once Islamabad cut its route to Afghanistan, the drive took ten and a half hours or more.
One hour alone we spent in the main tunnel (this is apart from the time spent in the shorter tunnels and half-open galleries) and encountered some worrying scenes. Motorcyclists without protective clothing drove in the exhaust fumes of cars and trucks, only with a towel around their heads to protect themselves. The complete absence of lights in long stretches of the tunnel, combined with the fat dust whirled up by passing cars, the heat and the fumes, meant the tunnel could turn the tunnel into a mass grave instantaneously. We saw many people praying before entering it.
‘If an accident occurs inside the tunnel, the fumes might kill all the people stuck inside in the absence of ventilation’, an engineer I meet up on the Salang says. This dangerous shortcoming has never been solved in all the years since the Soviet-built tunnel first opened in 1964. Almost every winter, travellers who are stuck in the tunnel after avalanches, die from asphyxiation (read one report here). In November 1982, under circumstances similar to today, a fuel truck exploded and killed hundreds of Soviet troops and Afghans in one of the biggest tunnel disasters ever.
Nothing has happened in the past decade, either: although USAID is said to have spent $5 million on repaving a part of the tunnel last summer, sealing leaks (melt water from the snow above is constantly coming in) and repairing part of the lighting, I witnessed no fundamental change compared to what I had seen passing through in previous years. Potholes, almost craters, inside the tunnel and along the road have deepened and widened still further in recent months as a result of the NATO supply traffic. Starting from the tunnel’s northward exit, toward Doshi – after some one to three hours of driving, depending on the density of traffic – the road often resembles a cloud of brown dust, covering the local people working in the small dukans (shops) or cultivating their fields along the road as well as fauna and flora with thick layers of grime. And then there is the enormous noise the engines cause with their constant gearing up and down.
Along the road, one can also see a number of burned out cars, coaches and fuel trucks. It looks as if the enemy has just struck. Rumour goes that some drivers or truck owners get them exploded or burnt in order to cash in the insurance in some sort of a lucrative business. Close to the Salang, in another scene, I passed a fuel track lying upside down at the edge of the road, with dozens of young and old people trying to save some of the fuel that came flushing out of the transporter. A spark would have been enough to turn the scene into an inferno.
The temporarily extended use of the northern supply routes is reported to be costing the US and other NATO states an extra $100 million a month. This is up to five times the sum they had originally calculated. Ironically, as the international military prepares for to withdraw most of its troops from the $62 billion Afghan reconstruction effort, (3) the road north through the Salang is currently in its most pitiful state for the past eight years. An official responsible for the tunnel’s maintenance, whom we met there, tells us that it would take at least four months to make the necessary repairs – and that, if the tunnel was completely closed – but NATO apparently insists this is not an option given its vital demand for supplies. One wonders whether the Salang route will be fixed before the Western departure in a sustainable way and whether the task of overhauling the northern main roads, parts of which have obviously suffered from poor internationally-financed construction work and corrupt use of donor money since 2001, will fall to Afghan engineers and road workers alone.
(*) Martin Gerner is a freelance journalist, filmmaker, media trainer and lecturer on Afghan media and film who has been working regularly in Afghanistan after 2001. His latest film is the feature documentary ‘Generation Kunduz – The war of the others’. He also is a frequent guest blogger for AAN.
(1) Read a report here.
(2) There is increasing insurgency activity reported from Kahmard district.
(3) Pledges 2002-13, according to this report.
Photo: Martin Gerner
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020