Afghanistan
6:16 am
Sun June 24, 2012

Afghan Tunnel: Decrepit, Dangerous Yet Indispensible

Originally published on Sun June 24, 2012 7:49 pm

The U.S. military says it's spending an extra $100 million a month on the war in Afghanistan since Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply convoys. Now, NATO is using a route thousands of miles longer through Russia and Central Asia.

That route passes through Afghanistan's perilous Salang Tunnel, 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush mountains. The Soviet-built tunnel was heralded as a marvel of engineering when completed in 1964.

But years of war, neglect and geology have turned it into a dangerous bottleneck.

Driving through the Salang Tunnel is a pretty harrowing experience. Water pours in through holes in the wall. Whatever pavement might once have existed has long since deteriorated into an extremely rough, bumpy, dirt, and in some places, mud road.

The tunnel is barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic, and the uneven road surface means trucks often tilt over at precarious angles.

Major Choke Point

Even though the tunnel is only 1.6 miles long, a recent drive through it took more than 20 minutes because it's jammed with massive trucks inching along the cratered road.

The diesel fumes were dizzying. At one point, the dust was so thick you could barely see five feet in front of you. It's no wonder the tunnel has become known as a choke point.

"It takes us 10 to 12 days to get from the [Afghan] border through the Salang Tunnel," says Najibullah — Afghans typically go by a single name — a truck driver sitting on the southbound side of the road. The distance covered in this journey? About 200 miles.

Lines of trucks waiting to pass through the tunnel often stretch up to 10 miles on either side. That's because truck traffic is restricted to one direction at a time. Every 12 hours, the traffic alternates directions.

Najibullah is hauling food for NATO troops that he picked up at Afghanistan's border crossing with Uzbekistan.

"A year ago, it used to take us one to two nights" to make the approximately 265-mile journey from Uzbekistan to Kabul, he says.

A year ago, 1,000 to 2,000 vehicles passed through the tunnel each day. But since the Pakistanis stopped allowing NATO to use their roads last November, traffic through the Salang has soared. An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 vehicles are now passing through daily, and it's getting more complicated with the drawdown of U.S. forces.

U.S. Pullout Creating Extra Strain

Stephen Biddle, an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, sums it up this way: "The issue is the mathematics of the stuff you need to move, the size of the pipe through which you're moving it, and how much time you're willing to take."

He says that the troops will fly out on schedule, but their equipment might take a bit longer. And, hauling armored trucks and generators out via Salang could cost five times more than going through Pakistan. It's putting even more strain on a situation that's already dangerous.

Setting aside questions of avalanches, washed-out roads and asphalt collapsing under the weight of heavy trucks, Biddle says, "simply getting through the Salang Tunnel itself is a dangerous undertaking that could very easily yield a catastrophe with a significant loss of life."

Mahmoud is another trucker waiting to pass through the tunnel. He's been driving this route for 30 years, and he says the problems are growing day by day.

"They are not giving us extra money. Because of the bumpy roads, we are getting flat tires. When we spend 10 to 15 days here, we are spending our own money to refuel the truck and also to refuel the freezer," he says.

In negotiations with the U.S., Pakistan has demanded significantly more money to reopen its land routes to NATO convoys. Pakistan also wants a formal apology for errant NATO airstrikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

Biddle says the U.S. would rather take its chances with the Salang Tunnel.

"It increases our cost," he says, "but we're already spending an enormous amount of money."

Fears Of Disaster

On a recent day, a convoy of SUVs pulls up at the Salang Tunnel's northern entrance, and Afghan Gen. Mohammed Rajab stepped out. He's been the chief of maintenance for the Salang highway for 10 years. He looked at the crumbling concrete on the opening jutting out from a snowcapped mountain peak. He's worried about a disaster — like the 1982 fuel truck fire that killed hundreds of Soviet troops and Afghans.

"Our big concern is from the ventilation," he says. "When there is an accident inside the tunnel, possibly the pollution will kill all the people who are stuck inside."

Rajab has been pushing for NATO to fund renovations. He says it would take at least four months with the tunnel completely closed to make needed repairs. That's not an option given NATO's demand for supplies.

Last summer, USAID spent $5 million repaving the tunnel, sealing leaks and repairing the lights. But that pavement is already gone, water is pouring in, and the lights barely illuminate part of the tunnel.

A trip back through the tunnel, on the return to Kabul, is another anxiety-inducing experience. To top it off, traffic coming the other direction is blocked because a truck has wedged itself against the inside wall.

NPR's Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Ever since Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply trucks, the Pentagon has had to spend an extra $100 million getting supplies into Afghanistan. They're using a route that's thousands of miles longer and runs through Russia and Central Asia. It passes through a tunnel 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The Soviet-built tunnel was seen as a marvel of engineering back in 1964. But years of war, neglect and geology have turned it into a dangerous bottleneck. NPR's Sean Carberry made the trip.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: We're currently driving through the Salang Tunnel and it's a pretty harrowing experience. We just passed one spot where water is pouring in through the wall into the tunnel. Whatever pavement once might have existed has long since deteriorated into an extremely rough, bumpy dirt and in some places mud road. And it's barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic. Finally, we emerge on the northern side. It took more than 20 minutes to pass through the 1.6 mile tunnel because it's jammed with trucks inching along the cratered road. The diesel fumes were dizzying. And, at one point, the dust was so thick you could barely see five feet in front of the car. It's no wonder this tunnel has become such a choke point.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK RUNNING)

NAJIBULLAH: (Through Translator) It takes us 10-12 days to get from the border through the Salang Tunnel.

CARBERRY: Najibullah is a truck driver sitting on the southbound side of the road. He's hauling food for NATO troops that he picked up at the border crossing with Uzbekistan. A year ago, one to two thousand vehicles passed through the tunnel each day. But since November, an estimated 10 to 20 thousand vehicles have been squeezing through the tunnel daily. And it's getting more complicated with the drawdown of U.S. forces.

STEPHEN BIDDLE: The issue is the mathematics of the stuff you need to move, the size of the pipe through which you're moving it, and how much time you're willing to take.

CARBERRY: Stephen Biddle is an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says that the troops will fly out on schedule, but their equipment might take a bit longer. And hauling armored trucks and generators out via Salang could cost five times more than going through Pakistan. It's putting even more strain on a situation that's already dangerous.

BIDDLE: Set aside questions of avalanches and road washouts and heavy trucks collapsing a section of asphalt that causes the truck to tumble thousands of feet into a gorge, simply getting through the Salang Tunnel itself is a dangerous undertaking that could very easily yield a catastrophe with a significant loss of life.

CARBERRY: Mahmoud is another trucker waiting to pass through the tunnel. He's been driving this route for 30 years and he says the problems are growing day by day.

MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) They are not giving us extra money. Because of the bumpy roads we are getting flat tires. When we spend 10 to 15 days here, we are spending from our own money to refuel the truck and also to refuel the freezer.

CARBERRY: In negotiations with the U.S., Pakistan has demanded significantly more money to reopen its land routes to NATO convoys. Pakistan also wants a formal apology for errant NATO air strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Stephen Biddle says the U.S. would rather take its chances with the Salang Tunnel.

BIDDLE: It increases our cost, but we're already spending an enormous amount of money.

CARBERRY: Money for repairs is what Afghan General Rajab wants from NATO. He's the chief of maintenance for the Salang highway, and he's frustrated by the damage NATO traffic is causing. General Rajab says that USAID spent $5 million last summer repaving the tunnel, sealing leaks and repairing the lights. But that pavement is already gone, water is pouring in, and the lights barely illuminate part of the tunnel. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.