Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghanistan recently witnessed the rebirth of one of its major lifelines, a roadway linking the nation’s capital to its southern city of Kandahar. Originally constructed by USAID between 1961 and 1966, the Kabul-Kandahar Highway had been debilitated by decades of war and neglect. USAID’s rehabilitation of the key portion of the country’s national road system has already brought enormous benefits. The travel time between Kabul to Kandahar was cut from two days to five hours, accelerating the flow of goods into and out of villages, and providing improved access to healthcare, schools and markets to the 35 percent of Afghanistan’s population that live within 50 kilometers of the highway. The highway also reaffirms the central government’s influence in this area.

The exhaustive efforts to revive “the veins of Afghanistan,” as President Karzai calls the road systems, now stretch out to the western part of the country. The rehabilitation of the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat Road is the centerpiece of the $665 million USAID-funded Rehabilitation of Economic Facilities and Services Program, aimed at promoting economic recovery and political stability by rehabilitating infrastructure.

“The Kandahar-Herat road is a key piece from a commercial standpoint, bringing Afghanistan closer to Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey,” said Frank Jordano, the prime contractor the Louis Berger Group’s (LBG) Front Office Manager. “Kabul-Kandahar was a success, bringing in commerce from Pakistan, and this is another key piece in the overall national infrastructure, which will bring out enormous commercial benefits.”

The Kandahar-Herat (K-H) road project, just like the Kabul-Kandahar (K-K) road restoration, is a multi-national effort. The 557 kilometer long highway has been divided into five sections for restoration work. Section 1, from Kandahar to Girishk, is 116 kilometers long and is being rehabilitated by the Japanese government. The government of Saudi Arabia, with additional support from USAID, is providing funding for Section 2, which runs the 115 kilometers between Girishk and Delaram. USAID is restoring Sections 3, 4 and 5, a total of 326 kilometers from Delaram to Herat.

“Projects like this totally open up the country,” said Marc Steinbring, LBG’s Deputy Project Manager for the Kandahar-Herat Highway. “The Kabul-Kandahar-Herat roads are integrated with USAID’s other secondary roads projects, bringing together villages and cities across the country. It’s excellent for economic development.”

The New Jersey-based international construction firm LBG is the prime contractor of the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat road, providing engineering, design and construction management for Sections 3, 4 and 5 on the K-H road. LBG has subcontracted two Turkish and one Indian construction companies for the project.

The project is a continuation of a monumental logistics exercise. An unprecedented non-military airlift had been organized for the K-K road restoration, flying in construction equipment, such as loaders, dump trucks, and bulldozers. Material plants, complete with rock crushing and asphalt mixing machines, were constructed along each section of the K-K. The heavy equipment and plants are now being transported from east to west.

“The challenges of time and distance of getting to the western part of the country is huge,” said Jordano. “Communications and flow of information will be critical, as the majority of staffs will be operating out there.”

Presently, Sections 3 and 5, which had a later start date than Section 4, are in the process of demining and mobilization. Camp construction, survey work, and material production are in progress. Road construction has begun in Section 4, with rubblization, crushed aggregate base, and asphalt treated base (ATB) ongoing.

“There have been many lessons learned from the reconstruction of the Kabul-Kandahar road,” said Dan Bichanich, Quality Assurance and Quality Control Manager for USAID. “Problems with design and supplies are now more predictable. There are more program managers overseeing the project for each section, and the country is a lot safer.”

The Kandahar-Herat road, originally constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, was built with precast Portland cement concrete (PCC) panels. The original PCC is being recycled by using a technique called “rubblization,” in which a rubblizer crushes the PCC in place and creates aggregates small enough to be recompacted for sub-base materials. Recycling the PCC has drastically reduced the cost of primary roadway construction, from approximately $500,000 per kilometer on the K-K to roughly $350,000 kilometer on the K-H.

A good asphalt mix design is crucial for the lifespan of the road. Locally procured aggregates are tested onsite to ensure quality and then crushed at the plant. The quality of bitumen, a petroleum distillate which binds aggregates together, is critical as it acts as the resistance force against the extremes of the local climate, which ranges from below freezing to over 125oF. The addition of polymer modifiers to the mix increases the pavement’s ability to deal with the temperature range.

“Building roads in Afghanistan requires better technology,” said Bichanich, “because the winters are harsh and summers extremely hot and dry. It is very difficult to make the right asphalt mix. In developed countries, roads are designed to last 25 years or so. In Afghanistan, we are designing roads for 13 years because of the climate and the challenges of getting necessary materials.

Bridges and culverts are a crucial aspect of the K-H road restoration. Currently, 28 bridges are scheduled to be reconstructed and two long bridges, one 324 meters and one 409 meters, will be replaced. More than 1,500 culverts are also planned for rehabilitation. In many areas, while the bridges and culverts are under construction, diversion roads will have to be utilized.

Capacity building has been an integral part to the project. When contractors for the three sections are fully mobilized, they will be procuring at least half of their labor force locally, creating jobs for hundreds of Afghans. USAID has also been working closely with the Ministry of Public Works throughout the project in order to gain their insight for capacity building activities and training opportunities. USAID is currently devising a program to help the country deal with the obstacles of roadway operation and maintenance, including snow removal.

The completion of the K-H road, which will mark another key step for Afghanistan’s future, pose substantial challenges. The project is currently running behind schedule due to the unusually bad winter, slowing the delivery of materials and demining. A plane crash in January unexpectedly claimed the lives of seven people who were vital aspects of the project. It is expected that security issues will increase as the temperature rises and the work along the road gets more spread out.

“Operating around all three aspects of any construction projects – schedule, cost and quality – in a harsh and hostile environment continues to be a challenge,” said Jordano. “But when you fly over the desolate terrain and see the black ribbon stretching all the way across the horizon, you know every effort has been worth it.”

Story by Katrin Park, for USAID OFFICE OF INFRASTRUCTURE, ENERGY AND ENGINEERING, February 2005. (Photo via Creative Commons)