By Scott Bohlinger (in Afghanistan)
About two years ago I drove from Taluqan to Fayzabad in the remote northeast of Afghanistan. It took 6-8 hours to cover a distance of 170km. Across the river from the dirt track that served as the road, work crews were engaged in the seemingly ceaseless and impossible task of blasting and digging away at the mountains which hindered the desired course of the road.
That 6-8 hour journey was a vast improvement over the two whole days it would have taken before much of the road bed had been graded and the 60 km stretch from Taluqan to Kishm had been paved. According to Fiona Mclysaght, country director for the NGO Concern, the road to the remote district of Yawan had also markedly improved, despite not having been paved. With improvements in drainage and grading here and there, a journey barely feasible in a day (8-9 hours) was now a reliable 5-6 hours in the summer (provided you’re not stuck behind a truck). The road still remains blocked throughout the winter, which lasts extremely long at Yawan’s altitude and latitude. These areas are very remote and the infant mortality rate remains among the highest in the world, but more goods are now available in the market thanks to the improvements, making it easier for people to stock up for winter.
The new roads are hardly grandiose. They are rarely wider than two lanes, but do allow decent speeds to be maintained while sparing tires and axles. Most importantly, they allow the improved flow of people and goods, contributing to economic growth. Fayzabad now has a few decent restaurants and some multi-story buildings on the outskirts of town. NGOs and businesses can administer projects more efficiently with quicker and more reliable access.
Today the Taluqan-Fayzabad drive takes about 2.5-3 hours, and it will decrease even further as a few crucial bridges are put into place. Of course, militants have also used the improved roads to spread their influence. Areas neighbouring the new roads have been introduced to a new standard of quality, and can now demand comparable improvements to other transportation arteries. The reality is that the improvements are impressive. It is nice to be able to sit back and appreciate the scenery without the incessant turbulence caused by the poor road conditions.
Scott Bohlinger is a politics and security analyst focusing on Afghanistan, Iran, and the wider Middle East.