NPR logo A Treacherous Trip On Afghanistan's Ring Road

A Treacherous Trip On Afghanistan's Ring Road

Afghanistan’s Ring Road, the main highway connecting this war-ravaged country, is littered with burned out vehicles like this bus. They were destroyed by roadside bombs or rocket propelled grenades fired by insurgents. Soraya Nelson/NPR hide caption

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Soraya Nelson/NPR

Of the major successes Western aid workers can claim in Afghanistan is the work they've done on the famous "ring road."

American taxpayer money paved much of this two-lane ribbon of gray, also known as Highway 1. It's the main road linking Afghans and their economy across most this difficult, mountainous country.

But these days, the ring road is also an indicator of how bad things are for Afghans.

I had a rare opportunity last week to experience the ring road the way Afghans do. I headed southwest to the volatile province of Ghazni to report on the dangers marring the upcoming parliamentary polls. (The story airs on All Things Considered today.)

American armored vehicles stop traffic on Highway 1 in the volatile Wardak province town of Salar after uncovering a roadside bomb or IED. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

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Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

American armored vehicles stop traffic on Highway 1 in the volatile Wardak province town of Salar after uncovering a roadside bomb or IED.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

My means of transportation was a slightly beat-up Toyota Corolla. As I got in, I threw on a blue, opaque burqa worn by Afghan women to protect them from the disapproving eyes of men. I use it to protect myself and my Afghan team against hoodlums looking to make a quick buck by kidnapping foreigners to sell to the Taliban.

Barely an hour into the trip, signs emerged of the growing war the Taliban is waging against NATO and the Afghan government. I gaped at the recent, burned out shells of tankers and SUVs on the road through the netting of my polyester shield.

The vehicles were clearly part of the dozens of convoys that travel along Highway 1 daily to supply the international coalition and Afghan economy. These convoys are a favorite target of the Taliban, which can claim some success in disrupting NATO and Afghan supply lines.

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Huge craters carved out by roadside bombs also proved a challenging obstacle course for my driver as we hurtled down Highway 1.

We slowed as we passed the twisted frame of what had once been a bus. I wondered how many passengers had been killed.

What surprised me and my Afghan companions was how many of these attacks are being carried out right in the middle of villages that straddle Highway 1. Either the villagers were planting roadside bombs or at least were turning a blind eye to militants who do.

One of these villages, Salar, proved the most dangerous point of our trip. There, our car and hundreds of others ground to a halt, creating a traffic jam that stretched for miles in either direction.

Heavily armored U.S. military vehicles rumbled past on the shoulder and stopped about 100 yards ahead of us. The soldiers hoisted a jamming antenna skyward out of one vehicle to block electronic signals, then released an unmanned four-wheeled rover, which scooted back and forth across the road.

I've been on enough embeds with the Americans to know someone had discovered a bomb. It took nearly three hours to dig up the road and safely remove it.

The delay didn't sit well with the carloads of people around us. They had no idea what was going on and neither the Americans nor their Afghan counterparts made any effort to communicate. Travelers struggled with the summer heat as they waited, but couldn't drink water or eat food as it's the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The soldiers may have saved people's lives, but to quote NATO, Afghan hearts and minds were not won on this morning. One driver who walked past our car offered a few choice words of what the government could do to President Karzai's wife.

By the time traffic began moving, it was almost noon. Hot and weary, I wondered, like many Americans, whether there was any point to the Western presence in Afghanistan anymore.

My spirits lifted when we entered the outskirts of Ghazni city. No one could see it through my burqa, but I smiled at dozens of little schoolgirls in white veils and carrying UN-donated school bags. Laughing and playing, they hurried home along Highway 1.