Afghanistan's multimillion 'highway to nowhere'

New road is a white elephant, Foreign Office insider says

A flagship multimillion-pound highway linking Afghanistan's major cities is of no use to the majority of the population and at risk of crumbling during the winter, a secret report presented to British ministers has warned.

The 2,700km "Highway 1", largely bankrolled by American and Saudi millions, was seen as a symbol of Afghanistan's emergence as a modern democratic nation after decades of oppressive rule and conflict. But senior figures within the Foreign Office (FCO) have questioned the priority given to the project – and the standard of the finished road.

A confidential paper under discussion in the department, seen by The Independent on Sunday, claims the road is not completely "metalled" with a durable surface, and has a layer of tarmac too thin to last an Afghan winter, leaving lengthy stretches in danger of disintegration. The document also complained that the highway was "of no value at all" to the vast majority of Afghans, who need better local roads to help them travel to towns closer to home.

Highway 1, it seems, is the road to nowhere, a metaphor for costly, ill-planned development projects which have acted as a bran tub of kickbacks for corrupt officials. The US spending watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, has claimed that Washington cannot account for billions of dollars spent on aid projects in the country.

The white elephants include: six Afghan National Police buildings so poorly constructed they were unusable; the Kabul Power Plant, built at a cost of $300m (£194m) to the US taxpayer, and beset by delays, cost increases and fit now only as an expensive back-up facility; and a project to upgrade the Kajaki Dam on the Helmand River which is years behind schedule, and for which a huge generator transported in pieces through a bitter fire fight with insurgents remains unassembled and rusting, partly because the concrete needed for its foundations was never delivered.

The shortcomings of Highway 1 have emerged as more than 70 nations prepare to rubber-stamp almost £10bn in additional aid to the country over the next five years. The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said the donors' conference in Tokyo today will demand that Afghanistan slash its budget shortfall in return.

But the record of development aid ploughed into Afghanistan so far is questioned by the leaked report on the country's future. The paper, written by a senior figure in the FCO, labels Highway 1 as "a classic illustration of the challenges that continue to hinder a swifter economic recovery".

It adds: "This major road system, started in 2002, is still not fully metalled due to a combination of siphoning away of funds, and contracts being outsourced through layers of companies. Once everyone has taken their cut, the layer of tarmac put down is too thin to last an Afghan winter. For the 91 per cent of Afghans who venture no further than their neighbouring town, it is of no value at all. More hearts and minds would have been won if a strategy was followed that linked together towns and the regional economic hubs, allowing market routes to open up."

USAid (the US Agency for International Development) lists the road as one of its "major accomplishments" in Afghanistan, "giving Afghans better connections to their country's major transportation routes, and facilitating their access to markets, schools, health clinics and government services". But locally based critics have complained that the road is expensive to maintain, largely used by foreign military and aid traffic, and that it has become a magnet for roadside bomb attacks, Taliban offensives and illegal roadblocks.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network, said: "The international community has been throwing money at problems without making sure that it is used effectively. I would suggest that a group of key ambassadors be invited to travel by road from Kabul to Kandahar, then ask them again how many kilometres of road have been built and asphalted. In other words, counting kilometres doesn't say anything about how the roads can be used."

The criticism of the roads strategy was reflected in a World Bank report earlier this year which concluded that Afghanistan's road network was crumbling away due to lack of maintenance over the past decade, with most donors more interested in building roads than keeping them in good order. The report, Afghanistan in Transition: Looking Beyond 2014, calculated it would cost £1.9bn to put the country's network into a maintainable state

The £17.4m budget allocated for road maintenance this year – a fraction of the £187m needed – is "far too little to meet the road network's maintenance needs", the report states.

The Department for International Development has pledged to improve monitoring of the £178m ploughed into Afghanistan every year, amid concerns that money intended for vital aid programmes is being diverted into the hands of local officials. Mr Mitchell last night told the IoS that the Tokyo conference aimed to "nail down" support for the Afghan leadership among ordinary citizens as foreign forces prepare to leave.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to outline new anti-corruption and accountability measures, as he tries to win support for a funding package his officials have drawn up with the World Bank. Mr Mitchell said: "It is very important that our commitment continues. We are in Afghanistan in pursuit of Britain's national interests, so that it can no longer be a haven for terrorists."

Of the criticisms of Highway 1, he said: "All these projects are difficult to deliver. Often we are working in extremely difficult circumstances."

Additional reporting by Denise Cheuk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning