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Afghan road builder’s dream now a dead end

The international community faces tremendous challenges rebuilding in an active war zone, revealing how even the best-intentioned development plans can be sidelined without security.
Afghanistan Khans Road
Once on the front lines of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, Khalid Khan now sits idle at his Kabul home. Farzana Wahidy / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Khalid Khan stares through the dusty window pane, down across the rooftops of the capital, and wonders if they really know where he lives.

Once on the front lines of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, the black-bearded contractor now sits idle — cross-legged and quiet on the floor of the small hilltop home he shares with another family after he had to sell his own.

"They called again this morning," he says of the kidnappers who once held him hostage at the bottom of a well, repeatedly threatening to execute him. "They said, 'We're watching you. Do you know what we can do to you?'"

Khan was contracted to build one of the final links of a $2.5 billion highway that circles this mountainous country, linking a massive road network to Kabul like arteries around a heart. It is one of the most important reconstruction projects launched here since the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban in 2001.

The soft-spoken 30-year-old had hoped to make a tidy profit. But after more than a year of work and two months of captivity, he is deep in debt, traumatized, and lucky to be alive.

And the road is still not done.

Khan's story underscores the tremendous obstacles the international community faces rebuilding in an active war zone, revealing how even the best-intentioned development plans can be sidelined without security. Khan's ordeal also shows how risky it is for Afghans willing to take part in that effort, and how little help there is for them when things go wrong.

"Multiply him by 1,000, and you'll understand why the entire reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is getting so bogged down," says Craig Steffensen, Afghanistan director of the Asian Development Bank, which is funding the final stretch of the so-called Ring Road.

Considered 21st century Silk Road
Building a highway to connect Afghanistan's major cities has been a dream of developers for decades, one born half a century ago when this Islamic nation was ruled by a king.

The Ring Road fell into disrepair through repeated wars, and the northern sections were never built. After 2001, rebuilding it became a centerpiece of the international development operation.

The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates two-thirds of Afghanistan's people live within its path. The government believes it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, boost trade, and pave the way for schools, hospitals and cheaper goods to serve isolated villages. Once complete, the asphalt will become a 21st century Silk Road, joining markets in Afghanistan to Central Asia, China and the Persian Gulf.

Today, nearly 90 percent of the 1,384-mile highway is done.

Much of the road, though, has become a front line — a two-lane gauntlet running through some of the most dangerous terrain in the country.

Hundreds have died building it. Countless more have died traveling on it: blown up by bombs, beheaded at illegal checkpoints by guerrillas who see the road as a conveyor of supplies and spies for the international coalition.

When the sun goes down, Afghans say, the Taliban own it.

3.7 miles the hard way
On paper, Khan's task was easy: lay the foundation of a 3.7-mile stretch of the road between two small northwestern villages called Ghormach and Douabi.

Khan was a subcontractor for China Railways Corp., which was contracted by the Asian Development Bank. He expected to be paid around $400,000 and make a profit of $20,000-30,000 after expenses.

The job began in August 2008, and immediately became arduous: it entailed cutting through rocky hills and destroying abandoned homes to transform barely existent goat paths into a gravel highway.

The region was so poor it had neither clinics nor schools. Most people drank water from rivers because they didn't even have wells. The road crews, by contrast, made lucrative targets. Residents "saw bulldozers and SUVs worth more than entire villages could make in a lifetime," Steffensen says.

The Chinese were slow in paying fuel for rented bulldozers, graders, and dump trucks, delaying the work, according to Khan. Chinese officials could not be reached for comment, but ADB documents obtained by The Associated Press confirm they were experiencing cash flow problems.

In November 2008, Taliban-linked militants abducted five Afghans from another subcontractor working for China Railways, killing one with a gunshot to the neck.

A month later, winter set in, freezing construction for months.

'So many times I died' as hostage
Khan had only been back on the job three days when a dozen gunmen with rockets and machine guns stormed into the house his company was renting in Douabi in April.

"Get down! Get down!" they screamed, herding Khan and 14 of his staff into a room at gunpoint.

The assailants wore dark gray police uniforms and army camouflage — both easy to purchase in Afghan markets. They marched the group five hours through the darkness, cramming them into an isolated farmhouse.

Over the next few weeks, most of the other hostages were freed after their families paid ransoms worth several thousand dollars each. When Khan's kidnappers realized he was a partner in the construction company, his ransom swelled to $300,000.

For 10 days, he was held at the bottom of a 25-foot-deep well filled with chilly water up to Khan's knees. He slept by squatting. His skin shriveled. Dry bread was lowered to him on a rope. He drank the water around him with his hands.

He was allowed out a couple times a day, but only to beg his family to meet the ransom demands.

"I couldn't tell if it was day or night," Khan recalled in an interview. "So many times I died. I never thought I'd make it out alive, or see my family again."

Ransom paid
During another week, he was hung upside down for hours, one foot tied to a wooden beam. He was slapped and beaten.

Steffensen says the kidnappers, though linked to local Taliban factions, appeared motivated by financial gain.

Yet they justified Khan's abduction as part of the wider fight against the government. They accused Khan of working for the U.S., telling him its money was "unclean."

"Why are you working for the nonbelievers?" they asked repeatedly.

"Why are you working for this government?" they demanded.

"Why are you building this road?"

"I told them we are poor people, this is just a small road," Khan recalled. "We are just trying to make a living, to build our country."

One night the kidnappers — who had long beards, turbans and were always armed — blindfolded Khan and took him by motorcycle to a hillside. They threw him down beside a dirt mound spattered with dried blood. It was the place, they said, where the Afghan engineer was executed and buried months before.

One of the militants leaned into his ear and whispered: "Tomorrow will be your last day on earth."

"Call your family! Tell them if they don't send the money, we're going to cut your head off and send it to them!" another screamed.

They fired gunshots past Khan's cheeks as he cringed, weeping.

Then they dragged him away.

By early June, Khan's family had begged and borrowed the ransom from friends and relatives from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Finally free
Cash in hand, they drove to Ghormach in six different cars, fearing ambushes on the way. They handed the money to tribal elders with connections to the kidnappers.

And two months and five days after his abduction, Khan was finally free.

Khan insists the ransom was $100,000. Other project officials put the figure at $30,000.

Steffensen says the amount is beside the point. "He suffered beyond imagination. His family shelled out everything they had to get him free, every nickel, that's clear," he says.

Khan sold his home in Kabul for $18,000 and turned to everyone with a stake in finishing the road for help. But nobody in his company, China Railways Corp., the Public Works Ministry or the Asian Development Bank was willing to pay back the debt.

"They all said it's your problem, we can't help you," he says.

For a month, Khan weighed his fear of restarting the project against the chance he could still turn a profit.

The Public Works Ministry and the Chinese — who Steffensen says were mostly holed up in their field compound for safety — begged Khan to finish the job.

When the Interior Ministry announced it was sending 500 police to boost security for road crews — with an unprecedented $2.5 million from the ADB — he decided to go back.

The new force's strength, though, was diluted along the way.

Hundreds of new rifles seized
The provincial governor and police chief diverted at least two dozen of the reinforcements to their personal security details, according to Maj. Gen. Sayed Kamal Sadat, who leads the national force tasked with protecting Afghanistan's highways. Both officials deny the allegations.

Provincial police commanders seized 400 of the 500 new Kalashnikov rifles the police were supposed to get, handing their old ones to the reinforcements, according to another Interior Ministry official, Habib Rahman. At least half the 40 new police trucks allotted for the operation were also diverted to local commanders, he said.

And because of an old dispute between Sadat and the provincial police chief, the reinforcements were not supplied with enough food, water or ammunition, Rahman said.

Some of the 500 police were deployed to guard road workers and their facilities, while others joined with local police to set up dozens of check-posts guarding the highway.

Sadat says seven of the police have been killed in rocket attacks so far. And at least one of the road posts has typically been attacked each night with grenades or small arms fire by motorcycle-bound Taliban, according to an ADB security official who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. The official said police at a couple of posts had also deserted and joined the Taliban.

Nevertheless, Sadat insists the force has been effective. Security has improved.

Second ambush
The second ambush came in September. Up to 40 gunmen hiding in mud-brick houses along the road opened fire with rockets and machine guns, according to police Capt. Najib, who heads the newly deployed force and like many Afghans, uses only one name.

The gunbattle lasted two hours. When it was over, two police were dead and one of Khan's rented road graders was ablaze, Najib said.

Khan was about a mile away, and fled at the start.

He has not gone back, and it's unclear if he ever will.

In November, ADB terminated its contract with China Railways Corp., deeming it incapable of finishing the job on time. Khan says the Chinese paid less than a quarter of his projected expenses, leaving him tens of thousands of dollars in debt for labor and machine rentals. The Public Works Ministry says it will force China Railways to pay whatever it owes its subcontractors.

Even in the best scenario, though, Khan will only break even, and still owe tens of thousands for the ransom.

He estimates only two-thirds of his tiny road is complete.

In total, only around 125 miles of the Ring Road remains to be built. But it may take three years to finish it all — or more.

Finding a contractor willing to replace China Railways and hire somebody like Khan will be tough because "nobody in their right mind wants to work up there," Steffensen says.

The final sector, just west of Khan's road, will be even tougher: it crosses a Taliban stronghold called the Bala Murghab River Valley that is so full of militants it's likely to be "shooting gallery" for troops and road crews, Steffensen says.

With no capable contractors willing to take on the unfinished sections, Steffensen appealed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help — at ADB's expense. A U.S. diplomat swiftly scotched the idea, Steffensen says, telling him the Army Corps is "spread too thin."

Hoping for kinder phone call
In Kabul, Khan says he recognizes the voices who call him every few days: they are the ones who tortured him.

They insult him, vow to recapture him, and warn their agents are watching. Sometimes they describe what he is wearing, or where he has been.

"We told you to quit building this road," they say. "We should have killed you when we had the chance."

There are other harassing calls, from the people to whom Khan is in debt.

He keeps answering his phone because he hopes he will find a kinder voice on the line, one that will get him out of this mess. A sympathetic government official, perhaps, or help from the international development community which is driving men like Khan to help them.

"I lost my life over this road," he says bitterly. "The government insists it be built, but they don't care about the people who build it."

Asked if he will return north to finish his job, sometimes he answers yes, sometimes no.

Beside him, on the faded red carpet, Khan's phone is ringing again.