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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own