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Corruption at 13,000 feet: Afghanistan struggles to maintain a treacherous mountain trade route

The Salang Pass connects the capital, Kabul, with northern Afghanistan, in particular the commercial hub of Mazar-e Sharif but also important provinces such as Baghlan, Kunduz and Badakhshan. (Andrew Quilty)

SALANG PASS, Afghanistan — The road that traverses this lofty mountain pass is the only direct route between Kabul and Afghanistan's northern provinces. Since the age of Alexander the Great, it also has been the main trade route between South and Central Asia.

Crossing it in 2018 will leave you both shaken and stirred. Shaken because despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent over decades on improvements, most of the road is now little more than a dirt track. And stirred because despite the bone-rattling journey, the sight of the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush is breathtakingly beautiful.  

But the road can also leave you angry, especially if you've been driving it week in and week out for decades, like Sayid, a trucker who like many Afghans uses just one name. 

"Nothing has changed in all these years," he said, while tucking a blanket around his old Russian-made truck's engine to protect it from the subzero cold at the top of the pass.
 "If anything, it has gotten worse."

Sayid is accustomed to abysmal roads, as he is to rampant corruption in his country — the latter often being the invisible force behind the former. Nowadays, his patience is running thin. When Sayid hears of President Ashraf Ghani's plans to transform Afghanistan into a transit point for regional trade, he scoffs.

Foreign donors have poured billions of dollars into road-building here since the toppling of the Taliban in 2001. But much of that money has gone to roads of strategic importance for the ongoing Western military intervention. Some of Afghanistan's most economically vital roads are in utter disrepair. 

The 1.7-mile-long tunnel near the top of the Salang Pass is a case in point. Completed in 1964 by Soviet engineers and thought of at the time as a marvel of engineering, it now has an unpaved road running through it. There is little by way of ventilation or illumination, and dust and fumes often reduce visibility to a couple of yards. The tunnel was built for a daily use of 1,000 to 2,000 vehicles, but now as many as 10,000 traverse it each day. Without offsetting maintenance, traffic has torn the pavement to shreds. 

Gen. Mohammad Rajab, a Defense Ministry official who oversees the road's security, recounts many past incidents when fires have broken out in the tunnel and drivers have asphyxiated. More than 100 people die on the road to the tunnel each year, too — in rock slides and avalanches, in collisions while rounding the road's 180-degree hairpin turns, or by falling into the Salang River's steep ravine (guardrails are unheard of). 

"The tunnel still needs just about everything: basic resurfacing, maintenance machinery, ventilation. And with everyone driving old cars and trucks, it's a gas chamber in there," Rajab said. "In all its years, it has just been repaired once. For the answer why, you have to ask the Ministry of Public Works."

Back in Kabul, Deputy Minister Abdul Rahman Salahi's first answer is terrain, climate and altitude. "The Russians were good at this, and we are not," he said. "We are still learning." 

But when asked why, nearly 60 years after the Russians began building the Salang road and tunnel, those attempts at improvement haven't borne fruit, Salahi offered another explanation. 

"Corruption is undeniable. Construction contracts are granted, then they get subcontracted and maybe even sub-sub-contracted, and at each stage of transfer, a cut of the money is taken," Salahi said.

The Afghan government is well aware that embezzlement is a major problem.

"Corruption has blocked Afghanistan from being self-reliant and free. And corruption has wasted a vast amount of precious resources that could otherwise have been spent reducing Afghanistan's crushing levels of poverty," Ghani said last year

How Afghanistan is ramping up its fight against corruption — especially among the country’s elite

The U.S. Congress-appointed Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction laid some of the blame on the massive amounts of money the United States has sent into Afghanistan.

"The United States contributed to the growth of corruption by injecting tens of billions of dollars into the Afghan economy, using flawed oversight and contracting practices, and partnering with malign powerbrokers," concluded a 2016 report from the office

The sole full-scale attempt at repairing the Salang road was in 2004 and was financed by the World Bank. A year after the project was completed, the pavement was mostly washed away by storms, and the road has been deteriorating ever since. Nevertheless, roughly $1 billion in goods have traveled through the tunnel in recent years, accounting for well over half the country's commercial trade, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development. When blizzards or broken-down trucks block the tunnel, the prices of fuel and basic goods spike in Kabul.

A World Bank representative in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with the news media, said corruption and incompetence doomed the earlier attempt. Contracted companies, after taking a cut of the budget, subcontracted local outfits that used cheap, inferior material that could not withstand winter temperatures and constant truck traffic.

In 2015, the World Bank announced a new $250 million road improvement project in and around Salang. The bank's representative, as well as Salahi, the deputy minister, said they had learned from past mistakes and would break contracts into smaller segments, which they argue reduces the incentive for subcontracting. 

To Qayoom Suroush, a former road infrastructure researcher at Afghanistan Analysts Network, that explanation hides the role of higher-level corruption. 

"In my experience, when the ministry officials award contracts to companies, regardless of their size, the ministry takes its share," Suroush said. "The first question is: What percentage do we receive?"

Suroush, echoing Rajab, said that the bribery and embezzlement stretch from the ministry all the way to local strongmen who provide protection for construction workers. "If you ask any Afghan, they will tell you that road-building is one of the most profitable [ventures] in the country for corrupt people," Suroush said. 

Salahi acknowledged that corruption exists even within his own ministry. "We are aware of our shortcomings," said Salahi, himself an engineer. "We are ensuring far greater oversight in this new round of contracting."

If everything goes according to Salahi and the World Bank's plan, the road over and through the Hindu Kush will be properly paved by 2022. 

That would mean another four years of grindingly slow and bumpy back-and-forths across the mountains for Sayid and thousands of other truckers who know all too well how their businesses could boom with a better road. These days, it takes a fully loaded truck almost 24 hours to cover the 100 miles between Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif, northern Afghanistan's biggest city. 

Sayid's truck full of hay was already late making it to Kabul. He didn't have any time for optimism: "Only Allah knows if my sons and my grandsons will drive on a better road."

Sharif Walid contributed to this report. 

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