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Af-Pak 2014: Rules of the road

Moqadasa Ahmadzai and Abdul Qayum Afridi
Dangerously overburdened by ever-increasing traffic between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Jalalabad-Peshawar highway serves as Afghanistan's major artery for trade with south Asia. As reconstruction on the…
2.12.2014  |  Jalalabad/Peshawar
Construction is in full swing on the 46-kilometer stretch of road linking Peshawar to Turkham. (Photos: Abdul Qayum Afridi)
Construction is in full swing on the 46-kilometer stretch of road linking Peshawar to Turkham. (Photos: Abdul Qayum Afridi)

Headed for the Pakistani border on the one-lane Jalalabad-Turkham highway in a trailer loaded with cartons of grapes from Kabul, driver Ziaratgul Shinwari stopped to replace his punctured front tire. “It takes us four hour of driving to reach Turkham [crossing] on this one-lane road,” he lamented. “If the second lane is built, our problems—to a greater extent—will be resolved.”

The Turkham highway is among the busiest roads in the Afghanistan. Every day, over two million people and thousands of trailers, trucks, private and commercial brave the pothole-riddled asphalt stretching 75 kilometers from Jalalabad to Peshawar, which facilitates Afghanistan’s access to south Asian markets and beyond. The connecting historical road, built the Pashtun emperor Sher Shah Suri in the 1300s, linked Peshawar with Calcutta for centuries, serving as the main trade route linking Central and South Asia.

In 2012, Pakistan’s former President Asif Ali Zardari inaugurated a project to reconstruct the road’s 46-kilometer stretch from Peshawar to Turkham. Financed by the United States government and other international donors, the project is part of a wider effort to increase financial assistance for infrastructural development in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The United States is providing $70 million for the reconstruction. In November 2012, the FATA Frontier Works Organization (FWO) which manages the project divided the entire Pakistani stretch of the highway from Karkhano Market checkpoint to the Turkham border crossing into seven sections, out of which 25 kilometers have reopened to traffic.

FWO spokesman Major Haseenullah told Afghanistan Today that a major portion of the highway up to Landi Kotal, approximately 34 kilometers in length, would be completed by the end of this year. Due to a lack of funding, the FWO had to reduce the number of bridges from 14 to 6. The crux of the problem is that the initial estimates of the project failed to account for additional "construction work" including drainage systems and retaining walls on some portions of the highway, Haseenullah said. Three major bridges at Sur Kamar, Kafar Tangi and Katta Kushtha had opened, he added, while the remaining three would be completed in the spring.

Pakistan's Frontier Works Organization (FWO) ran into financial difficulties while reconstructing the highway in the border provinces, as original plans failed to account for additional reinforcements required in the mountainous terrain.

Haseenullah added the FWO would build a 14-kilometre ‘rigid surface’ road, with 45-centimeter thick concrete fortified with iron mesh for improved weight absorption. “Laying down the rigid surface is a rigorous and complicated process," he said. "Laborers can lay only 100 metres of the concrete surface a day as compared to 500 meters of flexible asphalt surface [on the rest of the highway]."

The FWO is "optimistic" that traffic diversions near Landi Kotal would be removed by December this year, Haseenullah said. Major repair work on the remaining Turkham portion of the highway started in October, Haseenullah said, adding that FWO would look after the road for one year after handing it over to the National Highway Authority upon its completion. He said that if the international weight limit of 66 tons per vehicle was strictly observed and rules were properly implemented by national authorities, the newly built road could last for at least five decades.

The Jalalabad U-turn

While the road to Peshawar has seen some improvements, road construction has come to a standstill on the Afghan side of the border. In 2004, Pakistan invested $10 million into the first phase of the Turkham-Jalalabad highway, which former Prime Minister Shaukat Azizi inaugurated in 2006. The FWO's plans for Phase 2, which focused on the entire Jalalabad-Peshawar stretch at an initial cost of $48 million, got underway the following year.

Despite the Pakistan government’s promises to bring the Afghan side of the project to completion during the administration of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, construction in Afghanistan has been halted for financial reasons. Earlier this year, Pakistan's Finance Minister Ishaq Dar emphasized Pakistan's commitment to the project. But drivers traveling on the road still face car accidents, detours and delays. Travel time has doubled, mainly due to the high volume of commercial trailers and trucks. 

“In the early morning when I leave home, it’s difficult to say whether I will return home safely to my kids in the evening,” says commercial driver Ahmad Jan Momound. “Hundreds of drivers like me are on this highway every day, becoming victims of accidents on a daily basis.”

"The main cause for these types of incidents is the poor quality of the road, which lacks the capacity to accommodate the increasing volume of traffic," said Nangarhar province's Traffic Department Director Assadulah Usufzai. "Therefore, there is an urgent need for the construction of another road to begin as soon as possible.”

According to Shir Alam Amlawal, director of Nangarhar’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the highway is significant for both the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. “This is a very important highway that connects these two countries to the rest of the regions in Asia,” he says, pointing out that the volume of Pakistani exports to Afghanistan reaches $1 billion each year. “To a broader extent, [the highway] plays a crucial role in the economic development of Pakistan. Thus, it is logical for the government of Afghanistan to ask Pakistan to respect the commitment it made for building this new road.”

If the Pakistan government officially withdraws from the project, it will be up to the Afghan government to find a solution. “The Ministry of Public Welfare has assured us that if the Pakistan government gives up the project, they will start the work as soon as possible,” said Nangarhar province spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdul Rahimzai. “However, here in the province, especially in the governor’s office, we cannot decide when and how the work should begin, as there are no financial means and other required resources at our disposal.”

As construction on the Pakistani side continues near the highway's apex at Landi Kotal, where the Khyber pass takes drivers from FATA to Afghanistan, the unclear future of the Afghan side of the project remains a daily headache for local tradesmen like Afghani Jan Agha, for whom this cross-border highway is “more important than any Afghan road.” 

Jan Agha, who has operated an export-import business with Pakistan for 15 years, says it takes his trucks 15-25 days to make a roundtrip on the winding roads between Kabul and Peshawar. “Last year, I lost two millions PKR when my container got stuck in Landi Kotal due to a road jam,” he says. “But even though the road is slow, it is perfect… It facilities all those who are coming to for healthcare and other necessities to Pakistan.”