May 03 2011

Are we through yet?

Costly Afghanistan Road Project Is Marred by Unsavory Alliances

By ALISSA J. RUBIN and JAMES RISEN, The New York Times

Published: May 1, 2011

The money paid to Mr. Arafat bought neither security nor the highway that American officials have long envisioned as a vital route to tie remote border areas to the Afghan government. Instead, it added to the staggering cost of the road, known as the Gardez-Khost Highway, one of the most expensive and troubled transportation projects in Afghanistan. The 64-mile highway, which has yet to be completed, has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million – or about $2.8 million a mile – according to American officials. Security alone has cost $43.5 million so far, U.S.A.I.D. officials said.

Despite the expense, a stretch of the highway completed just six months ago is already falling apart and remains treacherous. The unfinished portion runs through Taliban territory, raising questions about how it can be completed. Cost overruns are already more than 100 percent, all for a road where it was never certain that local Afghans wanted it as badly as the American officials who planned it.

Within weeks of starting work, a construction camp was hit with rocket-propelled grenades, said Steve Yahn, the former chief engineer for the Gardez-Khost Highway project. Afterward, the provincial governor and the police chief told the Americans that if they had hired the right people for security, the attack would never have happened. “We got the message,” Mr. Yahn said.

That is when Mr. Arafat and 200 of his men were brought in to protect work crews. He was recommended by tribal elders from the Zadran tribe, said Paktia’s governor, Juma Khan Hamdard.

“On paper, the G.K. road was paying an enormous security detail of local-hire Afghans,” said one United States official. The highway contractors “would make a big deal out of their camps’ getting hit from time to time, and some of their guys would get shot in night attacks, but every instance I ever heard about coincided with payment negotiations with the Afghan security detail, of whom Arafat was the chief point of contact,” the official said.

It is impossible to determine how many of the attacks on the highway may have been staged by Mr. Arafat or his men. Despite all the money spent on security, however, there have been 364 attacks on the Gardez-Khost Highway, including 108 roadside bombs, resulting in the deaths of 19 people, almost all of them local Afghan workers.

“Since I have left the security of the road, it’s chaos there,” Mr. Arafat said. In fact, security officials have not seen any significant incidents since Mr. Arafat’s departure, they said.

A military officer who asked not to be identified said that contractors working in remote stretches of Afghanistan constantly faced such dilemmas. Do you keep paying off insurgents, or others, to keep the peace, even though they could use the money to buy weapons and sustain the insurgency?

“It’s a tradeoff,” said the officer. “It’s Afghanistan; there is never a good answer.”

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