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Paktika road improves government reach, unites provinces

By Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan DeCamp , Paktika PRT

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PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan (September 28, 2011) — Imagine a state with few paved roads, little air transportation to reach smaller cities and no waterways for travel. What ideas would connect people or energize an economy to create jobs? In southeastern Afghanistan, one answer involves roads.

The Sharan to Zurmat road project in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, began in June 2009 and runs through Mata Khan District. The district sits almost halfway between the provincial capital of Sharan and Paktia Province’s border. The road does more than affect the economy, it brings safety and security to cities and villages along the road, Afghan Government officials said.

“It has a lot of positive effects on the people because it used to be really hard for the people to drive from here to Sharan because they were scared of IEDs and things like that,” said Aziz Ullah, Mata Khan District Sub Governor. “Right now the road is paved and they’re not faced with those kinds of problems anymore.” 

The project is set to pave almost 22 miles of road. About 18 miles of that will go through northwestern Paktika while the rest will connect to Zurmat, the southwestern-most city in Paktia Province. The finished road will resemble a paved city street much like one in the U.S. The project is scheduled to finish in winter 2012. 

Almost ten kilometers of the road have been paved so far.

A driver heading from Sharan and Mata Khan would have needed two hours to travel the roughly 7 miles before that section of the road was paved. Now the drive takes just half an hour, said John Keys, a Paktika PRT engineer who began following the project for the PRT in April 2010. 

“The road was heavily rutted and it frequently washed out or was impassable during periods of high rain or spring runoff,” he said. “Breakdowns such as broken axles, flat tires or load falling off trucks were common.”

Mata Khan’s residents had a reason to fear the dirt road, according to American improvised explosive device records. In 2009, U.S. forces found at least 19 IEDs on the road between Sharan and Mata Khan. The following year the total jumped to at least 22.

Some of those IEDs included 30 pounds or more of homemade explosive, or HME. That much HME can tear a four-door sedan to pieces, said Chuck Graham, a PRT Paktika engineer. Motorcycles and sedans are two of most common vehicles used by Afghans in Paktika.

Graham spent more than 18 years as a combat engineer which involved finding IEDs. While in the Army, he also deployed to Paktia Province as part of a team that clears roads and finds the bombs.

“Gravel and dirt roads were prime locations for placing IEDs,” Graham said of his experiences in Paktia and Khost Provinces. “IEDs in hard surfaced roads are harder to hide. It takes more time to dig the hole for the bomb and wires running from the holes are easier to see because they’re not going through dirt. Often they’re running on top of the road.

“It also takes more people to do all that work and they would prefer just having one person dig the hole, place the bomb and leave; it’s harder to get caught that way,” he said.  

As deadly as the roadside bombs can be, some of the fear of IEDs has gone down due to the paving, according to Ullah. Statistics support the change in mindset. Construction of the paved road reached beyond Mata Khan in August. So far in 2011, no of the roadside bombs have been found by U.S. teams between there and the capital.

Though the concern about IEDs may never go away altogether, the paved portion of the road will have a large impact economically and socially. 

According to Paktika PRT civil affairs and U.S. State Department representatives, it’s difficult to gather accurate data on official population totals or the economic impact of the two cities due to the number of people continually moving around the provinces.

However, June statistics compiled by the World Bank’s Economic Policy and Poverty Sector show Paktika hosts a population of about 400,000 while Paktia, one of its two neighbors to the north, has about 500,000 people. Afghanistan’s total population is 24.5 million. 

Historically, those two provinces along with Paktika’s northeastern neighbor of Khowst, are commonly referred to as “Loya Paktia,” or “Greater Paktia” by local Afghans. Paktika and Paktia became separate provinces in 1964 and Khost became its own province in 1995. Many residents of the three areas still consider themselves living in the same province socially. 

Paktika’s PRT visited Sharan’s bazaar in the capital Aug. 25. They reported seeing well over 1,000 people buying and selling food, textiles and services.   The road would have been the shortest distance to travel for people and goods coming from the north.

The Sharan to Zurmat road provides residents of neighboring provinces a safer way to connect to each other, whether that involves bringing goods to a market or uniting families, Ullah said.

“This road was a very important thing for this district and our community,” he added. “It used to be that no one was willing to cooperate or come to the district center. … This is starting to change in part because of the road. People are willing to come and share their issues with us and we are doing what we can to help them out.  People are more willing to cooperate with the Afghan Government and the trust is increasing between the two.”

Ullah added, “The development of local roads has made the people happy. They feel more connected to outside areas like Paktia’s capital of Gardez, Khost and Ghazni Provinces, and even Kabul.” 

PRT leadership said helping connect the people of Afghanistan to their government and a better quality of life is the road’s true measure of success. According to Ullah, that is already happening in Paktika in part due to the road.  

“The development of local roads has made the people happy. They feel more connected to outside areas like Paktia’s capital of Gardez, Khowst and Ghazni Provinces, and even Kabul,” Ullah said.