Sunday, June 3, 2012

Comment on NYT Article on Salang Tunnel


Today's NYT features an article by Rod Norland, "U.S.-Pakistan Freeze Chokes Fallback Route in Afghanistan," which draws attention to Afghanistan's underdeveloped infrastructure. Moving anything into and out of the country is a logistical feat, that is made all the more complicated during the winter months. The article introduces new details about the month-long journey of transporting goods along the NDN and the risk to drivers. Great piece of investigative journalism, but I just want to add a few comments.

As Norland points out, the Salang tunnel was built in 1964 and has a history of problems. However, the tunnel's problems have not gone unnoticed by policy makers. The Salang tunnel was one of several infrastructure projects discussed at the Fifth Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA V) held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in March 2012. Section II, "Projects and Policy Priorities for Promoting Cooperation," subsection "Highways," of the RECCA V Declaration calls for the "rehabilitation of the Salang Tunnel (2.86 km) and construction of by-pass (Pul-e-Matak-Shibar-Doshi, 275 km)."

In March, Ariana news published an article on how the shortage of technical equipment threatens the Salang Tunnel's future.  In April, ToloNews reported that the Afghan Ministry of Public Works and USAID began developing plans to construct a second Salang Tunnel.

The World Bank's Emergency Transportation Rehabilitation Project for Afghanistan calls for the rehabilitation and maintenance of the Salang Tunnel as well as several secondary and tertiary roads. The project's closing date was originally set for 2010, but was extended until 2013. While this project would assist the transit of NATO cargo into and out of Afghanistan, it is also an important route for Afghan merchants and should be rehabilitated so it can be used for commercial purposes following the drawdown of international forces in 2014.

It appears the Salang Tunnel has not been fixed due to a shortage of financial resources and political will. Sadly, there is a strong tradition of non-cooperation and non-coordination on projects in Central and South Asia. All too often we see grandiose ideas for infrastructure development in the region, such as the Rogun Dam (yes, it is a Soviet-era idea but the poor relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan post-1990 have turned it into a contentious regional issue) which are never fully actualized due to failures to communicate, cooperate and coordinate. The World Bank, USAID, Afghan leaders and private sector partners must engage in a constructive dialogue on how to first improve, and then deepen and expand regional transportation infrastructure.  Donors must share the financial and political costs for developing infrastructure. Without improved ground lines of communication and supply chain systems, the Afghan economy will continue to suffer from low-levels of connectivity and foreign companies will lament the high-costs of doing business in the country.

Ultimately, the Salang Tunnel is a prime example of the necessity of financial resources and political will at the highest levels of power to rehabilitate infrastructure networks in South and Central Asia. If accomplished, this infrastructure will serve as the basis for economic development in the long run.

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