By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 27, 2009 - Few improved roads across the rural and mountainous Paktia province all but stop any real efforts for development here. A 25-mile trip to a northern district from the provincial capital of Gardez City takes nearly two hours, bumping along a narrow road between the speeds of slow and stop.
Many farmers in the northern part of the country export their goods to nearby Pakistan because they can't deliver them to parts east and south. The goods then are imported back into the eastern regions, at an inflated price, via roads that traverse the borders cutting through steep and treacherous mountains passes.
Basic health care, education and commerce are all but out of reach for most within this province.
But over the next few years, hundreds of miles of roads built to connect the commerce and governmental hubs will change that, cutting new paths across the province from north to south, east to west, officials with the Paktia Provincial Reconstruction Team said.
Hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to build roads here over the next few years, Air Force Capt. Shawn Kreuzberger, an engineer with the PRT, said. He works the road projects along with the PRT commander, Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Moy.
The team just awarded an $8 million, 17-mile paved road that is part of what officials call the "spine" road that will eventually cut across the province from east to west. The entire spine road is a partnership between the PRT, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Army Corps of Engineers, each working on a leg of the road that will stretch to the Pakistan border.
Also, a paved road that connects the province from north to south is under construction. When both are finished, the provincial capital of Gardez City will sit at the intersection.
All of the paved roads are aimed at linking major commerce and district government centers between provinces. But gravel roads also are planned that spider out from Gardez City into the 14 districts.
Many of the locals have never seen a road come to their village. Most use dry "wadis," or creek beds, to traverse the rugged landscape. The roads are, PRT leaders said, a dream come true. Many locals are so eager, they are willing to allow the walls of their "qalats," which are mud and straw fortresses, to be torn down to make room for the roads, Kreuzberger said.
Roads will tie agriculture hubs north in the province to commerce hubs in the south.
"They can move their stuff quicker. They can get it to areas that need it," Kreuzberger said. "It just makes everything flow within the province that much easier."
Also opening up the province, a $100 million, 62-mile road is being built from nearby Khowst City to Gardez City, linking the Khowst and Paktia provinces. Work has started at both ends. But before it is finished, it must cut through the treacherous "K-G Pass," a narrow road that winds along the steep mountainside at elevations above 7,000 feet.
Making it more difficult, the road is hotly contested by insurgent fighters who don't want the link between the two provinces.
The road projects serve a dual benefit, Kreuzberger said. They develop the infrastructure, but also put local people to work boosting the local economies and helping with security.
"We're paying them instead of the Taliban paying them," Kreuzberger said.
Many of the larger projects are broken into pieces. This allows for work to start quicker, but also allows the PRT to spread it out among the many contractors vying for the work. In good weather, companies here can pave more than a mile a month.
Speed is of the essence for the road projects. Locals become skeptical if they hear a road is coming, but no work starts. They are not patient with large road projects that can take a couple of years from conception to completion.
"One thing we've found in this culture is there is no tomorrow. They live for today," Kreuzberger said. "And if they don't see something happening, then they don't think it's happening."
This can cause the PRT problems as it works with tribal leaders who do not trust that the project will be started as promised.
Local governance will benefit from the roads as well. Many in the rural provinces have not even seen their elected leaders. Many are cut off during the winter because roads are impassable. The network of roads will allow provincial government more access to district government.
"It just shrinks everything down," Kreuzberger said.
Improved roads also bring a safety benefit. Paved roads make it more difficult to emplace bombs, Kreuzberger said.
Right now, locals who drive the "jingle trucks," -- highly decorated semitrucks full of goods -- risk their lives and loads as they travel the rough highways. They are heavy enough to set off the pressure-plate activated bombs, popular in the region.
"[Improvised explosive devices] don't discriminate," Kreuzberger said.
The road crews and their equipment often are targets of enemy fighters. Building a road takes expensive equipment that is costly to fuel and hard to protect. Many contractors build security into the contracts as they bid on the work.
The insurgency has a vested interest in stopping the development, Kreuzberger said.
"You keep [locals] back in the stone ages and they don't know any better," he said of the insurgent grip on many remote villages. "If you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose."