Economy & Development

Going in Circles: The never-ending story of Afghanistan’s unfinished Ring Road


Afghanistan's most important road: a stretch of Ring Road in between the Salang tunnels. The asphalt cover worn off, no boundary walls. Photo: Qayoom Suroush

Since the presidential campaign and during trips abroad President Ashraf Ghani has been promising to turn Afghanistan into an “Asian roundabout” for regional trade and transit. However, for this, Afghanistan would need to improve its transport systems and build new and better roads. That is probably why, in his first cabinet meeting, on 2 October 2014, Ghani ordered the ministry of public works (MPW) to complete the missing sections of the Ring Road, the country’s major highway circle, within nine months. But is this a realistic goal? Will the Afghan government be able to meet the deadline? And what are the actual problems hampering the construction of the last part of the Ring Road? AAN’s Qayoom Suroush looks at the specific, project-related obstacles, such as a dispute about the contractors’ capacity and security issues, but also at wider problems like cuts in the national budget, corruption and the poor maintenance of roads.

Shukor has just crashed his truck into the mountain. He was traveling from Balkh province to deliver coal to southern provinces of Afghanistan and then Pakistan on Afghanistan’s Ring Road. Passing through some of the Salang tunnels, his truck skidded in a steep curve on an unpaved bit of open road, and he lost control over the heavy vehicle. “It is so dangerous to drive on the Ring Road,” he told this author who was traveling the road in November. “It is in bad shape.” Shukor pointed down the mountain slope to the wreck of a Toyota Corolla about 100 metres below. “This driver was not as lucky as I was, hitting the mountainside of the road. He fell down the mountain, because there were no boundary walls to the side of the road and he died along with three members of his family.”

According to ministry of public works, each day around 7,000 vehicles pass through the Salang tunnels, which form the part of the Ring Road connecting southern and central Afghanistan with the northern provinces. Except for the longest one, all road surfaces in the tunnels lack an asphalt cover; the lighting and ventilation are damaged and many tunnels are dark. Melt water from ice and snow is leaking in at many places, further damaging the road (see also a recent report by the Wall Street Journal here). And this is the section of the road that has, in the past few years, received the most attention paid to road maintenance.

What is now called the Ring Road goes back to the 1950s when the Afghan government first gathered support from the Soviet Union and later from the United States to modernise its road system. These projects were part of the First Five-Year Economic and Social Development Plan (1956-1961) under then Prime Minister – and later President – Muhammad Daud who was assassinated in 1978.

In 1955, during a state visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchov both countries signed an agreement to build a new road crossing the Hindukush at the Salang Pass. Its heart piece, the 1.7 miles long Salang Tunnel (actually a whole series of tunnels and roofed galleries to protect the traffic against avalanches and rocks), was opened in 1964; some sources say in 1967. During the 1960s, the Ring Road connecting Kabul with Ghazni, Kandahar and Herat was built, some parts with US funding and technical support. When the US part of the project was finished in 1966, travel time between  Kabul and Kandahar was reduced from eleven to six hours. This part costed 42.9 million dollars, of which 39.3 million came from the United States. The US also contributed the stretch between Kandahar to Spin Boldak at the Pakistani border, which had already been built with US support as a a gravel road in 1948-49. In 1967 and 1969, two  Soviet-assisted projects – the road from Sher Khan Bandar on the Amu Darya via Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri through the Salang tunnel to Kabul and the paving of the Kabul-Mazar highway –  were finalised. (During the same years, the Soviets built Bagram airport north of Kabul, the Kabul Silo – bakery and grain storage – and the Jangalak factory.)

The road totals around 2,210 kilometres (see here for a map and here for a photo gallery from The Telegraph) and is crucially important to the country’s economic interests and trade. It is the only transport system that connects South Asia (India, Pakistan) and Iran to Central Asia (Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) directly on a land route.

The construction of the Ring Road started in the western-most part of the country, Herat province, which borders Iran. From here, it goes south and passes through Nimruz, Farah, and Helmand before reaching Kandahar. The road continues through the eastern provinces of Zabul, Ghazni, Wardak, Kabul, and Parwan. It then passes through Baghlan to reach Balkh in the north. From Balkh province, which borders Uzbekistan, it turns back west, through Jowzjan, Faryab and Badghis provinces, returning to Herat where it completes the circle. The last part, however, connecting Akina port in Faryab with Herat has only been built, in parts, from 2012 onwards – with 233 kilometres of road still missing between the northern provinces of Faryab (Qaisar district) and Badghis (Laman district). Stretches partly exist as dirt tracks, but none has been paved.

During the civil war (1979–2001), most of the Ring Road as it then existed was heavily damaged. A survey conducted by USAID in 1994 showed that as little as 15 per cent of all the country’s roads were in a good condition. During the mujahedin era (1989–96), no road project was implemented. The following Taliban regime (1996–2001), however, did carry out some road projects, and only on the Ring Road: they asphalted 40 kilometres between Kabul and Kandahar and another ten kilometres were paved (but not asphalted) in Wardak province. Moreover, around 195 kilometres of the Kandahar-Herat section of the Ring Road were “repaired by sealing the transverse cracks.”

However, since the beginning of the international intervention in Afghanistan, the Ring Road’s rehabilitation has been one of the most important infrastructure projects, to which many donors, including the US, Germany, Japan, Italy, the World Bank and Saudi Arabia, have contributed. But although work has been going on since 2003, the already mentioned 233 missing kilometres in the north connecting Faryab – through Badghis – and Herat have never been completed, leaving the circle of the Ring Road a broken one. In his first cabinet meeting on 2 October, President Ghani demanded that the missing parts be built within the upcoming nine months, emphasizing the importance of the road for Afghanistan’s trade and economy. But there are problems: with the contractors hired – says the ministry. With the ministry not providing the necessary security – says the company.

A confidential report and a closed office

In January 2012, the Asian Development Bank had commissioned the joint American-Turkish venture ECCI-METAG to build the missing 233 kilometres within four years (see here and here) – a 477 million dollar project. The ECCI website does not provide information about the scope of their involvement in the project and ECCI did not respond to AAN’s request for further information. The Turkish partner, the METAG company, has, according to its website, carried out three road projects before the Ring Road (one in Kazakhstan, one in Uzbekistan and one in Afghanistan), but no details of the projects (pictures, scope of the work, length, or budget) are provided. The company’s only ongoing road project seems to be, according to its website, the Ring Road in northern Afghanistan.

A confidential report submitted in August 2014 by the ministry for public works (MPW) to the National Security Council (NSC) (the President’s office had asked the ministry to send a report to the NSC because the issue touched on security concerns; AAN saw a copy) said that neither of the two companies in the joint venture had the road reconstruction experience or machinery required for the project. The ministry also writes that until August 2014, ECCI-METAG had carried out only 14.16 per cent of the project while, according to the project contract, they should have completed 61.14 per cent. The company also allegedly did “all” essential and non-essential work through Afghan sub-contractors while, according to the initial agreement, they could only subcontract 50 per cent of the non-essential works. Additionally, Aziz Mudaber, the chief of staff at the ministry, told AAN that the company had allegedly not paid the bills of these subcontractors, who had then come to the ministry asking for help. The ministry of public works told AAN that the company was “incapable of handling the project.”

According to the contract between the ministry and ECCI-METAG, any dispute over the project will be referred to a “dispute board,” consisting of an international lawyer as well as representatives of the Afghan government and the company. In early September 2014, such a dispute arose when the ministry claimed that ECCI-METAG staff in Kabul, during Eid holidays, closed the office and left the country, not having fulfilled what they had already been paid for with 107 million dollars (see a BBC Persian interview with Najibullah Ozhand, ex-minister for public works, here and here in English). However, Suhail Kakar, spokesman of the ministry, told AAN, that since the company had given the Afghan government a 106 million dollar bank guarantee, they believe the money can be regained.

ECCI-METAG, on the other hand, according to a press report, seems to maintain that the Afghan government was unable to provide security for the project, bringing it to a standstill while the company still had to pay salaries of professionals they had hired. The company’s management contractor, Hill International, as well as the Asian Development Bank did not respond to AAN requests for comments.

The dispute, particularly the company’s complaints about security, does ring familiar. Insecurity remains a major obstacle for foreign investment in Afghanistan and also for major infrastructure projects that often are interrupted, delayed or never started. In Logar province, for example, also due to security reasons, the Chinese company Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) hasn’t yet started to extract copper, an enterprise that was supposed to bring the Afghan government 3.5 billion dollars. As for the security situation in Faryab and Badghis where parts of the Ring Road need to be finished: it has deteriorated significantly in recent years. The Taleban carry out attacks on a regular basis and rule parts of districts. In April 2014, for example, Taleban in Faryab took over a large area of Qaysar district and remained in power for three weeks (see AAN reporting on Faryab here). Badghis province has not fared much better (see for example here). On 22 November, elders from Badghis came to Kabul to ask President Ghani for help to secure the province. They told the president that more than 170 families had been forced to leave their houses “due to the Taleban threats” (see here and here; there are no details given about the timeframe during which the people have been leaving).

The first dispute board meeting mediating between ministry and ECCI-METAG was held in summer. It ruled against the ministry, asking it to pay a ten million dollar fine to the company. It supported ECCI-METAG’s claim that security had not sufficiently been provided. However, Afghan officials at the ministry believe that the board ruling was unfair and that they have evidence to prove that they are not responsible for the suspension of the project. They asked for a second hearing. This one was held in Dubai on 17 and 18 November. Results are not yet known. Pending the outcome of this session, ministry officials have threatened that, if justice is not done, they will take the case to an international court.

Road construction as the second largest aid recipient

The dispute over the completion of the Ring Road constitutes a specific example of the problems plaguing the road sector. Others, looking beyond the Ring Road, are corruption and road maintenance.

According to SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, an American oversight authority), donor countries have invested four billion US dollars in Afghan roads since 2001, out of which approximately three billion US dollars have been used for rebuilding the Ring Road (see in this report an overview of road reconstruction projects since 2001). According to the SIGAR report, this makes road reconstruction the second-largest aid-receiving sector in post-2001 Afghanistan. However, not all the given money was spent on road construction. In general, and particularly for large infrastructure projects, significant amounts of money have been given to private security companies to provide safety and sometimes even to local insurgents to allow supply trucks to pass unhindered (according to a Business Insider report from 2013, “The U.S. military has estimated that up to $360 million ended up in the hands of Taliban and criminal elements in Afghanistan over the past decade”). This might contribute to explaining why, according to a SIGAR report from July 2014 (quoting the World Bank), 85 per cent of Afghanistan’s roads are still in poor condition.

This, partly, has to do with the poor quality of road construction – even of new roads. In June 2013, Najibullah Ozhand, then minister for public works, confirmed that corruption had resulted in low-quality roads. In April 2012, Ozhand even stopped all road building projects for this very reason. One example is the Gardez- Khost highway, which according to a New York Times report, fell apart just six months after construction. Ozhand also stated that the ministry could do nothing about it, since contracted companies report directly to the donors.

No money for road maintenance – or no will?

Besides building new roads, an important issue is their maintenance. The ministry is responsible for the maintenance of all roads, but a source from inside the MPW says that, until recently, the concept of road maintenance did not figure prominently within the ministry – it “neither had the budget nor cared much.”

In 2007, USAID contracted a company to build capacity within the MPW for the operation and maintenance of roads. The USAID project established a Road Maintenance Unit (RMU) and in 2012 handed it over to the ministry. But the situation did not improve, mostly because staff still seemed less than capable for the task, and money for the necessary works was lacking. USAID also did – off budget – road maintenance projects. However, in June 2014, the USAID Mission Director for Afghanistan wrote for SIGAR that they believed such “off-budget funding of road maintenance removed the incentive for the MoPW to develop a sustainable O&M [operation and maintenance] policy.”

Overall, USAID has provided around 53 million dollars for road maintenance from 2007 to 2012. In 2012, according to the Washington Post, USAID cut its remaining maintenance funds (except for 102 kilometres of the Gardez-Kunduz road and 83 kilometres of roads towards the Salang Tunnel), claiming that the MPW lacked the capacity to effectively use the fund to build a sustainable road maintenance mechanism. Another project picked up on the issue, and other donors took over some of the financial burden, but the already mentioned June 2014 SIGAR reports to the heads of USAID and the Department of Defense (DOD) (see here and here) prove that maintenance is still an important concern and that not much has been achieved in this regard.

Talking to AAN, a ministry official explained that building capacity and expertise to maintain the roads requires money and machinery, which the ministry of finance (MoF) does not provide in its budget for the MPW. The Road Tax Law of Afghanistan rules that the MoF has to charge one Afghani per litre of fuel as road tax, and article six of the same law says that the taxes collected by the ministry of finance should be given to the MPW for the maintenance of roads and highways. According to the national budget for the fiscal year of 1393/2014, the MoF collects around 53.5 million US dollars annually in fuel/road tax. But, according to the ministry of public Works official, the MoF does not transfer this sum to the MPW to do road reconstruction, but instead uses it, partly, for MPW salaries and other expenditures. The rest, a ministry of finance spokesperson told AAN, is being “budgeted according to the National Priority Programs.”

This means, MPW staff are not provided with the tools needed to do their job and, in practice, are paid for doing nothing.

In this year’s first national budget draft, only 0.4 per cent of the total budget was allocated for maintenance of the roads, that is, one billion Afghani (approximately 17.3 million US dollars). According to SIGAR, there is a 100 million dollar shortfall of funds for proper maintenance of Afghan roads.

Asphalt shredded, bridges blown up

Today, a majority of Afghanistan’s roads, including the Ring Road, have been – and are – damaged and unrepaired. According to a recent report by the Washington Post, nearly 10,000 miles (around 40 per cent) of newly built roads have been “worn away by overuse. Others are shredded by hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) laid by insurgents.” Taleban regularly plant IEDs or blow up bridges. In October 2014, for example, they blew up an important bridge in Zabul province in revenge for the ban on motorcycle riding (the ban was ordered to prevent drive-by attacks; see here for the AAN report on the Ghazni-Kabul highway).

One particular problem is overweight trucks and armoured vehicles, particularly on the Ring Road, which sees most of the heavy traffic (not only local traffic, but also NATO supplies being transported through Central Asia and then via the Salang Pass). The Kabul-Kandahar section of the Ring Road, for example, has been compressed to the extent that tyre tracks are clearly visible in the asphalt. Finally, in April 2014 the Afghan government passed the Regulation on Control of High Tonnage Loading Vehicles, ruling that overweight trucks will be fined 3,000 to 48,000 Afghanis (approximately 52 to 832 US dollars) depending on the excess weight. The ministry of public works has installed several scales along the Ring Road to weigh trucks; for the future, several remote roll-over scales shall be installed, which can transmit data directly to the ministry.

However, so far the MPW has been unable to implement the law. The major obstacle is corruption. Some of the ministry’s officials take bribes and also allow heavyweight trucks to pass unhindered. In 2012, talking to the BBC, then minister Ozhand admitted that his staff in Salang took around 3,000 US dollars in bribes on a daily basis (here and here). At the same time, many government officials are involved in the transport business, and when their companies’ overweight trucks are caught, they use their networks and political power to have them released without fine. A high-ranking official in the ministry told AAN that they receive such calls from members of parliament and other officials every day.

Another obstacle is the lack of ministry facilities to store goods taken off trucks. After trucks having been weighed, drivers must immediately reduce their loads to the standard weight. But there are no storage facilities for offloaded goods.

For the future, the international community (USAID and World Bank) has promised to build “(a) an autonomous Road Authority to manage road maintenance and development, (b) an autonomous Road Fund to provide sustainable financing, and (c) a Transportation Institute to train and build capacity of Afghan professionals to plan, analyze and manage the road sector.” But in the meantime corruption, the lack of road maintenance, the lack of capacity at the ministry of public works, the lack of budget for buying machinery for road maintenance (all of which might worsen as the international community shrinks its commitments) are the real challenges to a functioning transport system in Afghanistan.

And these might be worsening, looking at Afghanistan’s budget issues – the Afghan government is suffering from an acute ‘cash crunch’ that is likely to hamper public projects. The ministry of public works has already complained that in the draft of the national budget the parliament has just rejected, “30 incomplete road projects” had not been considered at all. Officials sent a letter “expressing our deep concerns,” warning that all progress achieved would be undone fast if construction could not continue. Tolo News reported that ministry of finance officials, in a response, promised that funds “will likely be included“ in a next draft. „We are trying to allocate funds for these projects.” However, finance ministry officials have in an interview with AAN before London conference also warned that infrastructure projects not yet started are likely to be put on ice as long as the budget shortfalls are not addressed.

In a meeting with the MPW leadership, President Ghani on Tuesday, 30 December, said, according to ministry officials, that there was “no money for big development projects” in the upcoming “four months.” He mentioned a “large Chinese aid package that is coming up” that might be used to build the so-called “Afghanistan’s corridors” (dalezha-ye Afghanistan), major highways crossing the country north to south and east to west. The Ring Road – a project with a much nearer completion date – was not mentioned.

As long as it remains unclear whether the ministry and ECCI-METAG can solve their dispute about completing the missing sections of the Ring Road in the near future, it is obvious that President Ghani’s timeline cannot be met. However, a delay might not be the worst that could happen, if the plans for the near future help to build a high-quality road for which maintenance is provided.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development