AS a hair-thin line on a map, Afghanistan's national Ring Road looks easy enough to conquer.
But tell war-hardened Afghans that you're going to travel its entire 1,373-mile length unarmed, facing winter and a raging insurgency, and they look at you like you're completely mad.
Five years after the fall of the Taliban, it shouldn't be such a challenge.
Rebuilding the two-lane highway that connects Afghanistan's major cities has been a centerpiece of the U.S.-led effort to transform the nation. It is so important that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said that President Bush once demanded daily updates on the roadwork from Kabul south to Kandahar, the seat of power under Taliban rule.
U.S. grants have paid for rebuilding a third of the road, according to Afghan government figures. Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are responsible for repairing other sections, a rare case in which Washington and Tehran are working toward the same goal. Officially, the $1.05-billion project is almost finished.
But as with many things in Afghanistan, there is a chasm between the rhetoric and reality.
Some of the best stretches of the road are among the Taliban's favorite killing grounds. This fall, Canadian troops led the biggest ground battle in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 57-year history, in part to regain control of a stretch of highway west of Kandahar. The NATO offensive cleared the insurgents, but guerrillas and highway robbers still prey on travelers in many other places.
About 40% of the road isn't finished. Some sections are nothing more than muddy tracks through the country's lawless Wild West, where you can drive for hours without seeing another vehicle fishtailing and backsliding through the muck along with you.
The only way to understand the condition of the road and grasp what it says about Afghanistan is to drive it.
The trip took my interpreter, driver and me seven days, inching along slippery edges of steep cliffs, wandering in the wilderness without road signs, suffering two flat tires, a ruptured radiator and a spinout on mountain ice.
On the way, we managed to avoid a Taliban ambush, a potential kidnapper or highway robber, a suicide bomber and a gunman who fired close enough to take off one of our heads.
I KNEW some of the Ring Road all too well. I traveled it for weeks in the early Taliban era a decade ago, when years of war and neglect already had reduced the highway to patches of broken asphalt connected by dirt, rocks and ruts. A trip that would take a few hours on a proper road was days of torture, the speedometer straining to break 10 mph as the vehicle crawled over shell craters and pond-sized potholes.
This time, I would be leaving from Kabul with interpreter Wesal Zaman and driver Zyarat Gul. A quiet and calm man, Gul had gotten us home safely from other terrible places.
Before starting out, we visited three experts at the Economics Ministry to find out what we were in for.
Sayed Arif Nazif, the ministry's director of design, told us that the building of the road began in the mid-1970s. The United States helped, but most of the money came from the Soviet Union and Arab countries.
Farmers used the road to get their produce to market. Afghanistan became the world's largest exporter of dried grapes, apples and other fruit. It also sent an assortment of nuts.
"In those days, in terms of our roads, we were much more advanced than neighboring countries," Nazif said. "But because of the wars and other problems, all our roads were destroyed."
Soviet troops and tanks poured down the Ring Road to invade Afghanistan in the dead of night on Dec. 25, 1979, setting off a decades-long tailspin from which Afghans are still trying to recover.
The rebuilding of the road is supposed to help revive the economy and break down ethnic differences by allowing Afghans to travel more freely. Although dried fruit exports are 20% of what they were before the wars, reconstruction is showing benefits, Nazif said. This year, the repaved road allowed farmers to get fresh pomegranates, grapes and apples to Kabul's airport, and the first few flights delivered the produce to wealthy Persian Gulf states.
I had a more pressing question: "How long do you think it would take to drive the whole Ring Road?"
Nazif shifted in his seat. "Take the length of 1,373 miles, and divide by an average speed of 50 miles an hour," he said.
"That sounds like we could do it in maybe four days," I replied, trying to do some quick mental math. Nazif smiled and nodded, but we both knew Afghanistan was a lot more complicated than that.
Before we started, we took some precautions that are prudent for any trip into the countryside: We loaded the car with two spare tires, a shovel, bottled water and snacks. And we made one rule: If Gul, an ethnic Pashtun like most of the Taliban, saw anything on the horizon or felt anything he didn't like, he should turn around without pausing to ask us.
A small victory
AS the Ring Road begins a steady climb out of Kabul on a 27-mile section rebuilt by the Taliban, the horizon is bright white with towering snow-covered mountains. The road is as smooth as any in the United States. But the government can't afford to keep it plowed, so it was covered with packed snow and ice that brought long lines of heavy transports to a halt on the highlands near Ghazni.
We were less than six hours into the journey near Shahr-i-Safa when we saw the first signs of Taliban activity.
Four insurgents armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades had ridden two motorcycles to a hill overlooking a stretch of the highway near Qalat. About 3 p.m., they opened fire on a civilian truck taking supplies to an Afghan military base, a common guerrilla tactic.
Normally, insurgents carry out swift attacks and make a getaway into the desert. But this time a pickup carrying half a dozen Afghan national army troops happened by. They pinned the guerrillas down from behind and called in a second unit to attack from the front.
We reached the scene about half an hour after the battle ended. Jubilant Afghan troops were smiling and joking next to three Taliban corpses, like scavengers enjoying quality roadkill. One of the dead men lay on his back with his knees bent, as if he might jump up at any moment. But the bullet hole in his neck left no doubt his war was over.
The fourth fighter escaped, so the victory wasn't complete, said Afghan army Maj. Atullah Maiwandwal.
It was a battle too small to make the news, let alone change the course of a war. But the major and his men had achieved something significant: Without U.S. military advisors or foreign backup, they defended a piece of highway rebuilt with a $237-million U.S. grant, the sort of gradual progress that often gets lost amid the noise of suicide bombings and other insurgent attacks.
"Where are your bodyguards?" one soldier asked, stunned that we were traveling the highway without weapons.
We explained that we preferred to travel unencumbered by armed escorts. So as night fell, we rushed off to Kandahar, which has been staggering under a wave of suicide bombings. The governor gave us beds in his guest house.
Early the next morning, we headed west into Helmand province, the scene of fierce fighting this year between NATO forces and the Taliban.
A large billboard on the edge of Kandahar declared that the highway was being rebuilt as a gift of the Japanese people.
Actually, the 70 miles of road that Japan pledged $76 million to fix is the same bumpy, cracked surface that it has been for years. The area is too dangerous for road crews.
It is the hashish harvest season, and marijuana plants as big as Christmas trees are stacked by the thousands against mud-brick homes, curing in the sun. Villagers scrape the gooey resin, which is pressed into blocks and exported along the same routes that move the opium used to produce heroin, a big source of the insurgents' income.
Hundreds of gunmen prowl the Ring Road in Helmand. They are members of private militias who take orders from local warlords and drug barons and operate illegal checkpoints, mostly to squeeze money from truck drivers.
As one longtime resident of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, told us, "They are loyal to the government until 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and then until the next morning they're enemies."
As we neared the Lashkar Gah turnoff, in an area where we were told that kidnappers had abducted two German journalists, our driver broke our one rule.
The broken rule
GUL slowed for a speed bump, and instead of accelerating when a militiaman jumped up with an AK-47, he stopped. Gul opened the driver's window, apparently weighing the comparative risks of getting shot and getting kidnapped. The gunman stuck his head in, saw me in the back seat and smiled like a dog sniffing fresh meat.
"Get us out of here!" I shouted at Gul, and he hesitated. "Get moving!"
Gul hit the gas. The barrel of the gunman's rifle clunked off the rear side of the car. Not daring to look back, I tensed for the shot that didn't come.
In Lashkar Gah, we stopped at a construction agency funded by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, where we previously had met cook Khudai Nazar. At 64, he is old enough to remember what is possible with peace, and young enough to believe he might live to see it again.
We asked what he remembered of the Ring Road of his childhood. He sent his son for an opaque plastic sandwich bag stuffed with browning reference letters and old photographs.
They tell of a more innocent age, from the late 1940s to the 1970s, when American workers and their families lived in Helmand. They were building a dam, a power plant, irrigation canals and other development projects in the Afghan desert.
In one black-and-white photograph, Nazar is 12 years old and standing on a lush lawn surrounded by a white picket fence with his new bicycle, a gift from Rose and Don Wonderly of Portland, Ore.
"The first time I met with her, I didn't understand English," recalled Nazar, who speaks with an American accent. "American people always like children, and they didn't have any. She said come every day to my house and I'm gonna teach you English."
Within a few days, Rose was giving the boy new clothes and encouraging other American families to leave him some of their hand-me-downs. The Wonderlys left in 1960.
By the time the Soviets invaded in 1979, Nazar had worked for a string of other Americans: George Belissary promoted the servant to a warehouse job; JoAnn and Ronald Thompson of Sacramento praised his bread-baking skills; Jack and Maxine Smith wrote of their fondness for his pastries and good humor.
The Smiths had to flee the Soviet occupation after 17 months in Afghanistan, and in her last words to him, Nazar said, Maxine urged him to take his wife and their 10 children to Pakistan.
"She said, 'Just send me a message and I'll have a house waiting for you -- everything,' " Nazar said wistfully. It was clear in his breaking voice that he wished he could have left. But he never found enough money, or will, to turn his back on the land of his birth.
Nazar bid us farewell with the hope that some of his long-lost American friends might try to reach him, maybe even risk a visit.
Three hours after we left Lashkar Gah, a suicide bomber walked into the well-guarded compound of the provincial governor, a few blocks from where we'd visited Nazar, and blew himself up in the parking lot, killing eight people.
The Wild West
HEADING north toward Herat, we drove for several hours past mountains weathered so smooth they seemed molded from clay. We reached Herat that night, putting us more than halfway along the Ring Road at the end of our second day.
Swift progress made us overconfident. We talked about being back in Kabul in a day or so. We marveled at the traffic lights operating at all the main intersections in Herat, the only major city to escape the destruction of Afghanistan's wars.
The pleasure was short-lived. The next morning, 35 miles northeast of Herat, the highway abruptly ended. We didn't see asphalt again for three days.
Iran was supposed to complete 70 miles of paved road from Herat into Badghis province, but its contractors suddenly stopped work, said Gov. Mohammed Naseem Tokhi. Some say the money ran out; others cite unspecified problems between Iran and the rest of the international community, Tokhi said. He has received no official explanation.
The Afghan national government hasn't even been able to find a country willing to fund construction of the road through the rest of the province.
Entering Badghis was like driving back into biblical times. Ours was the only internal-combustion engine running for miles. Most people were walking or riding donkeys. The gray smoke of cooking fires seeped through the black fabric of nomads' low-slung tents.
The province's people, many of whom are Pashtuns, have long felt cut off from the rest of the country. Now they are largely missing out on billions of dollars in international aid, and that makes Badghis an ideal recruiting ground for insurgents. Grinding poverty and poor health have left even moderates angry with Karzai's government and its foreign backers.
Prolonged drought followed by devastating floods last month left three-quarters of the province's people without enough food, Tokhi said. The only roads into the province are so bad that relief agencies are having a tough time reaching people. Many could die during the winter, he said.
In the frontier town of Bala Murghab, a Ring Road bridge is a dangerously unstable span covered with metal sheets laid by people who salvaged them from a derelict factory. The 200,000 residents of the surrounding area have no electricity, and their water is so bad that diarrhea is a main killer.
Smoldering rage exploded this fall when gunmen stormed the district commissioner's new headquarters, a three-story yellow brick building built by USAID. They blasted a rocket-propelled grenade through the guardhouse and fired assault rifles at offices and police cars, shattering most of the main building's windows. The district commissioner fled for his life. Three foreign workers at a U.S.-based agency's compound escaped by hiding in their garden as rampaging mobs looted the buildings.
When the aid agency shut its office, townspeople persuaded its Afghan supervisor, Ghalam Seddiq, to become mayor. Slipping another prayer bead along a string as he talked to us, Seddiq said the attackers wanted to stop the aid agency's education programs and prevent children from learning, a Taliban priority.
The center of town is a ramshackle bazaar, where merchants glared as we drove along muddy streets. A large padlock sealed the front doors of the only hotel. The elderly caretaker said it was too dangerous to stay there, but the new district commissioner ordered the hotel to open for us.
In this Afghan version of a Wild West town, Abdul Jalil Sekandari is the deputy sheriff.
Guarded by a young man with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, Sekandari dropped by our hotel room that night. By the glow of an oil lamp, he griped about the government and foreign aid, personally guaranteed our safety and invited us to spend the night with him in the police station. We thought our odds were better in the hotel.
WE rode out of town at first light. We weren't far into the countryside when a man in a Taliban-style black turban lurking near a disabled Soviet tank leveled his Kalashnikov rifle and took a potshot at us. We heard the loud hiss-snap of a bullet passing close by, but he didn't fire again. It must have been a good-riddance round.
Soon even the dirt road disappeared into a labyrinth of mud tracks that crisscrossed broad valleys. We fishtailed and churned our way through dense fog, along tire ruts at least 2 feet deep. The four-wheel-drive car jerked and bucked like a rodeo bull.
There were no road signs, and no other vehicles. So the only thing to do was ask directions from a shepherd or a farmer working the sodden earth with a wooden plow pulled by his donkey.
"Does this road go to Maimana?" we asked an old man at one crossroads.
"Yes. But others prefer that way," he replied, nodding toward a dirt road heading in the opposite direction.
When we pulled in for a rest in Maimana, a pool of green fluid spilled out of a hole in the radiator, which a mechanic pounded shut the next morning.
We finally returned to paved highway at Andkhoi, a dust-blown place near the border with Turkmenistan, where for centuries tribal weavers have produced some of Afghanistan's best carpets.
Mohammed Ikram, a dealer representing more than 400 female weavers, was at the roadside, squatting in the dirt to measure a carpet in a floral design of red, blue and yellow. It would go to Pakistan, where a trader would pay about $210 a yard, attach a "Made in Pakistan" label and export it to the United States or Europe for hundreds of dollars in profit, Ikram said.
If Afghanistan could have peace and security, traders would follow the Ring Road straight to Andkhoi, he imagined. "And if tourists come here, then we will all be rich," Ikram said, smiling.
Paved highway awaited us on the other side of town, so we pressed on south to Mazar-i-Sharif, chattering about how good it would feel to have hot water and lights.
Come back later
MAZAR-I-SHARIF means Tomb of the Exalted. It is home to one of the holiest sites in Islam. Some Shiites believe it is the final burial place of Hazrat Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, who was assassinated and first buried near Baghdad in the 7th century. Blood is still being spilled over the schism that followed, but not in Afghanistan.
Robbers are the biggest threat on the roads around Mazar. Andkhoi's carpet traders say they are regularly fleeced by gunmen demanding illegal road taxes.
After a night of comfort in Mazar, it was an easy drive to the Salang Tunnel, a 1.7-mile passage at 11,034 feet built by the Soviets through the Hindu Kush mountains on the route south to Kabul.
In winter, howling blizzards pummel the Salang's peaks. Avalanches, asphyxiation and plunges off cliffs have killed dozens of travelers.
As we headed up the pass, we recalled another trip a few weeks earlier when Gul skidded on black ice in the tunnel. The wheels hit the edge of a concrete walkway so hard that the front axle broke. He was elected to walk through a blizzard to a public works outpost a mile down the mountain. It was the middle of the night and deathly cold. A few workers huddled around a small wood stove.
"Is anyone hurt?" one asked when Gul asked for help.
"Are there any women?"
"Are you stuck in the middle of the road?"
"Then go back to your car and come back in the morning."
This time, we made it through the tunnel and most of the Salang Pass without problems. The sky was ice blue, the road mostly clear. It seemed too easy for the end to such a hard journey.
Just then, Gul put the car into a 360-degree spin. A snow bank kept us from going over the edge.
We sat silently for a few seconds, staring up at the meandering Ring Road to see whether that was the worst that would happen -- or whether fate was about to catch up with us in the form of a sliding truck.
Our luck held. There wasn't anyone close enough to harm us.
The car, with every bolt, spring and cable caked in mud, creaked and shimmied its way down the Shomali plains, and in a few hours we were overlooking Kabul, sprawled out across a plateau and shrouded in brown smog. The capital hadn't had a suicide bombing for days. The only thing left to worry about was traffic.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Despite more than $1 billion in construction aid, the primary roadway connecting Afghanistan's main cities is incomplete and beset with problems. Here is a look at what happened during a seven-day drive over its entire 1,373-mile length:
1. Taliban fighters attack a civilian truck. Afghan army troops engage guerrillas, killing three.
2. A suicide bomber blows himself up at compound of the provincial governor in the capital of Helmand province.
3. The highway abruptly ends, and the journey must continue on dirt roads and mud tracks. In neighboring countryside, a man takes a potshot at passing reporters. The radiator springs a leak.
4. Asphalt roadway begins again, but soon the journey reaches the treacherous Salang Tunnel, a 1.7-mile passage through the Hindu Kush mountains at 11,034 feet.
Sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas, USGS