Asphalt placement proceeds despite the recent expansion of high-risk areas. (Photo by Sean Cronin)

The road from Kabul to Kandahar is being billed by the U.S. and the fledgling transitional government in Afghanistan as a showcase infrastructure reconstruction project. But for the engineers of East Orange, N.J.-based Louis Berger Group Inc. and their Afghan, Turkish, Indian and Pakistani contractors, the 482-km road refurbishing job is turning into what some say is the most dangerous construction project in the world.

The design and construction team has had to deal with kidnappings, shootings, a harsh climate and an inflexible schedule at an incredibly remote site. Political stability is nonexistent as local warlords vie with Taliban and Al Qaeda strongmen for control.


In his 1962 novel Caravans, James A. Michener described the route as a 300-mile-long road that "had been in existence for some 3,000 years…the last repairs must have been completed at least 800 years ago, for each mile of the road involved a particular adventure."

That description proved accurate in 2002, when the U.S. Agency for International Development selected Berger to manage reconstruction of five segments of two-lane blacktop between the two largest cities in a country that had been fighting for a quarter century. The Taliban paved Section A (see chart), a 43-km urban corridor on the Kabul end, before they were deposed in 2002. The Japanese have signed on for Section G, the final 50 km into Kandahar.

Berger is responsible for the rest. The specifications call for a paved surface 20-30 cm thick for a 7-m-wide road, with 2.5-m-wide graded shoulders providing room for broken-down vehicles. Drainage structures are a major part of the job, with nearly 50 bridges, 25 causeways and more than 2,500 culverts along the route.

(Source: The Louis Berger Group)

USAID primed the pump with $250 million in financing, but sources say security expenditures will push the total well beyond the initial commitment. The contractor has its own army of armed guards, numbering 1,100, approximately one for every construction worker.

Every day, helicopters shuttle between Kabul and the main construction camp at Ghazni, carrying engineers who prefer the relative safety of the air to the option of using the road that they are rebuilding. This is the biggest construction project currently under way in Afghanistan and a pet project of President Hamid Karzai and USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. Planners hope both men will be on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony Dec. 16, marking the completion of the first asphalt lift.

Two more layers are scheduled by late 2004, but the contractor says the road will be ready for traffic this month. It will cut transit time from Kabul to Kandahar from two days to four or five hours.

Berger engineers on Dec. 8 met their own 230-day deadline for the project’s first phase. "We have to focus on the job at hand. We’d be wasting our time even thinking about the political side of things," says Mike Bois, roads superintendent on the job.

Still, the photo opportunity is irresistible, a chance to put nation-building on display during the constitutional grand assembly called Loya Jirga. But Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents have other ideas as they try to recoup lost ground through violent intimidation. The road work force is a prime target. Earlier this year, they killed four project guards and the Taliban last month freed a Turkish engineer who they kidnapped in October (ENR 12/8 p. 15). He worked on Section F for a Turkish joint venture, Gulsan-Cukrova.

The Taliban also is threatening to kill two Indian construction workers who were abducted Dec. 6 near Qalat. They are employed by an Indian joint venture, BSC-G&C, on Section E. "We have repeatedly said that no work in Afghanistan should be done in the presence of Americans," a Taliban spokesman told Reuters. "Anyone who assists America or the Afghan government is liable to death."

A Pakistani working for a subcontractor on another Berger project in Ghazni province was killed in an ambush on Dec. 8. The Taliban claims credit, but other reports attribute the shooting to a botched police drug investigation.

(Photo by Sean Cronin)

Bois and fellow engineer Fred Chace had their own close call in October. Driving near Qalat, they were ambushed at a roadblock. Gunmen opened fire as the two Americans threw their vehicle into reverse. A machine gun bullet tore across Chace’s scalp. "An eighth of an inch lower and it would have taken the top of his skull off," says Jim Myers, Berger project manager. Both men took time off–Bois for a visit in the U.S. and Chace for medical treatment in Dubai–and then returned to the job. Bois says the Khmer Rouge kidnapped 30 workers from a Cambodian road project he worked on in the 1990s, but even that experience did not fully prepare him for Afghanistan.

Myers, a self-described "asphalt man," has little truck with ribbon-cuttings or visiting dignitaries. He is more comfortable wrestling with problems he can fix, such as a fuel convoy stuck on the wrong side of the Pakastani border or a bridge foundation under construction that has been washed away by a flash flood.

After Pakistan made it difficult for Indian subcontractors and suppliers to make overland deliveries, Berger arranged transshipment through Iran and endured a six-week delay.

The contractor also spent $3 million, at roughly $150,000 a pop, to charter 20 flights by Ukrainian Anotonov 124 aircraft. The lumbering but robust cargo carriers delivered 2,500 tonnes of bitumen starter and other equipment from Turkey, Egypt and other neighboring countries. "It was like the Berlin airlift," says Myers.

Aggregate came from the dry riverbeds along the route. Soon, portable screens were feeding eight portable asphalt plants to produce between 50 and 180 tonnes per hour. "None of the contractors know how to handle big plants," says Bois. The solution was 20-hour workdays. "The best they did was 4,000 tonnes from a single 150-tph plant," Bois says.

Ordanance removal is often the first order of the day. Afghan worker safely detonated an old soviet grenade. (Photo by Sean Cronin)

The contractors used imported bitumen to meet their daily production target of 2,500 tonnes. "You need to crack the barrel open like an egg, but it needs to be cold or it flows out like goo," says Bois. "Now, the evenings have been getting colder. We have been spending the nights cracking these [barrels] open and we are doing about 60 to 80 tonnes a shift."

Nobody looks forward to the night shift, when bright work lights illuminate everyone on the site. For the last year, the workers have felt like targets for the Taliban, Al Qaeda and common bandits. With the lights, "you’re looking out, but you can’t see who’s looking in," says Bois.

Last month, the team was dealt another setback when the United Nations agency responsible for demining work withdrew from Ghazni after a kidnap attempt on a staff member. The crime was linked to a French humanitarian aid worker’s murder in Ghazni days before.

Regardless of the risks, no one on the Berger team regards withdrawal as an option. In the staging area at Ghazni and the head project office in Kabul, it is business as usual. Still, even the old hands realize that this project is not the standard road job. "We’re all going to remember this one," Bois says.