Afghan Salang Pass: Enter at your own risk

Afghanistan's critical link between north and south is in dire need of promised foreign aid

When we arrive at the Salang Pass at 8:30 a.m., the cars are already lined up for nearly a mile outside the scariest black hole I have ever seen. I'm prepared for at least a nine-hour road-trip from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif through what claims to be the highest mountain pass on earth. But I hadn't been told that the tunnel isn't just snow-covered – it is also snow-packed, unpaved, unventilated, and unlit. Oh, and missing a few chunks here and there. Oddly, although I've been reporting in Afghanistan on and off since December, this the first time I have ever really felt unsafe.

Where, I wonder, is that $4.5 billion that the international community promised to give to Afghanistan's reconstruction at Januarys donors' conference in Tokyo, $1.8 billion of which is supposed to be spent in this first crucial year? Is anyone here going to believe that this is a new Afghanistan if the most important artery linking the capital city with northern Afghanistan and Central Asia beyond cannot be passed without great peril – and delays that can last for days?

Inching up into the Hindu Kush mountain range to a height of over 11,000 feet, we learned from the tunnels operators that we had arrived on the wrong day for going north. The nearly two miles of tunnels are so encrusted with ice and snow – even at the start of summer – that traffic can go in only one direction each day. But after some pleading by our Afghan reporter and an hour-and-a-half wait, we were allowed to head north into the tunnel.

Our passage proves to be akin to being a lonely little fish swimming upstream when dozens of sharks are swimming downstream. We are forced to squeeze against an exhaust-blackened snowbank or the toothpick columns of the crumbling snow galleries each time a massive truck comes barreling over the cratered path, which appears to not have been repaved since the tunnel was built by Soviet engineers close to 40 years ago. No one seems particularly bothered by the signs at the entrance, recently put up by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), warning drivers to beware carbon monoxide poisoning.

If you suspect you may be falling ill from the carbon monoxide, the signs warn, get out of your car and get out of the tunnel. I look behind me and in front of me, seeing trucks blocking the way in each dark direction. I look to the side, out at the snow galleries, which in places let in blessed rays of light, to find an almost vertical drop into an icy chasm below. And just how does one "get out?" The sad fact that five motorists died in this tunnel and about 500 were rescued after an avalanche this February – just a month after it was opened for the first time since 1997 – suddenly rushes to mind.

In other, totally closed parts of the tunnel, there is no natural light at all; the electricity disappeared years ago. Only headlights from the cars light the way – thin, weak sabers pointing us through a putrid yellow-orange air that makes me want to hold my breath until we are out of the beast. Inside, we are Jonah trapped inside the belly of the whale, whispering silent prayers that we will once again see the light of day.

The gnawing feeling of rocking down winding, unpaved roads in icy mountain passes after dark makes me notice that we take street lamps and metal guardrails for granted. And as we pass through the murkiest parts of the tunnel, we squeeze by caravans of refugees returning to their homeland after years of exile, some of them sitting in the luggage racks on the tops of old buses because there isn't enough space inside.

We survived the nearly two hours it took to get through the tunnels, but the Salang Pass is not always so yielding. A subsequent trip involved a wait of more than eight hours, during which we fought the dropping temperatures toward nightfall with an array of local delicacies our driver picked up along the way: sugar cookies, rock candy, fresh rhubarb, and dried yogurt balls. Over eight hours of waiting with nothing to eat but Afghan junk food gave me a lot of time to wonder about the state of this country's infrastructure.

According to the World Bank, help is on the way, albeit much more slowly than they had hoped. The bidding documents went out at the end of June. But even emergency repairs haven't been approved yet – and cannot be until the World Banks governors meet in September. "We are working on a combination of credit and cofinancing and grants," says Terje Wolden, a World Bank project manager in charge of the tunnel project. "The government [of Afghanistan] is relying on prefinancing, but that's the problem, because they don't really have anything to prefinance with."

To anyone who watched the massive pledges of support for Afghanistan – including US promises that Americas interests in this troubled nation were not limited to taking out the Taliban and striking back at Al Qaeda – it is difficult to believe that funding for necessary projects is in question only six months after the immense international donors conference in Tokyo. Anders Bjorgung, the administrator of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund at the World Bank, says that of $100 million pledged by donors to that fund for the year, which started in March, only $43 million has been received so far.

Aside from the Salang Pass, this countrys highways remain in appalling condition. Of the country's 3,600 miles of roads, only 1,500 were ever paved, according to a recent World Bank report. The roads that link major population centers of Afghanistan are so bad that interim President Hamid Karzai devoted part of his speech at the conclusion of last weeks loya jirga, or grand assembly, to a plea and promise to restore Afghanistan's byways.

If that does not happen, the international community's bridge to Afghanistan will be about as flimsy as the makeshift bridges that carry passengers to the Salang Pass. With most bridges bombed out, wooden planks have been thrown across rusting old Soviet tanks and anti-personnel carriers, piled up in place of columns at the edges of the river.

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