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Ever since Pakistan closed its border to NATO supply trucks, the Pentagon has had to spend an extra $100 million getting supplies into Afghanistan. They're using a route that's thousands of miles longer and runs through Russia and Central Asia. It passes through a tunnel 11,000 feet up in the Hindu Kush Mountains. The Soviet-built tunnel was seen as a marvel of engineering back in 1964. But years of war, neglect and geology have turned it into a dangerous bottleneck. NPR's Sean Carberry made the trip.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: We're currently driving through the Salang Tunnel and it's a pretty harrowing experience. We just passed one spot where water is pouring in through the wall into the tunnel. Whatever pavement once might have existed has long since deteriorated into an extremely rough, bumpy dirt and in some places mud road. And it's barely wide enough for two lanes of traffic. Finally, we emerge on the northern side. It took more than 20 minutes to pass through the 1.6 mile tunnel because it's jammed with trucks inching along the cratered road. The diesel fumes were dizzying. And, at one point, the dust was so thick you could barely see five feet in front of the car. It's no wonder this tunnel has become such a choke point.
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NAJIBULLAH: (Through Translator) It takes us 10-12 days to get from the border through the Salang Tunnel.
CARBERRY: Najibullah is a truck driver sitting on the southbound side of the road. He's hauling food for NATO troops that he picked up at the border crossing with Uzbekistan. A year ago, one to two thousand vehicles passed through the tunnel each day. But since November, an estimated 10 to 20 thousand vehicles have been squeezing through the tunnel daily. And it's getting more complicated with the drawdown of U.S. forces.
STEPHEN BIDDLE: The issue is the mathematics of the stuff you need to move, the size of the pipe through which you're moving it, and how much time you're willing to take.
CARBERRY: Stephen Biddle is an Afghanistan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says that the troops will fly out on schedule, but their equipment might take a bit longer. And hauling armored trucks and generators out via Salang could cost five times more than going through Pakistan. It's putting even more strain on a situation that's already dangerous.
BIDDLE: Set aside questions of avalanches and road washouts and heavy trucks collapsing a section of asphalt that causes the truck to tumble thousands of feet into a gorge, simply getting through the Salang Tunnel itself is a dangerous undertaking that could very easily yield a catastrophe with a significant loss of life.
CARBERRY: Mahmoud is another trucker waiting to pass through the tunnel. He's been driving this route for 30 years and he says the problems are growing day by day.
MAHMOUD: (Through Translator) They are not giving us extra money. Because of the bumpy roads we are getting flat tires. When we spend 10 to 15 days here, we are spending from our own money to refuel the truck and also to refuel the freezer.
CARBERRY: In negotiations with the U.S., Pakistan has demanded significantly more money to reopen its land routes to NATO convoys. Pakistan also wants a formal apology for errant NATO air strikes last November that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Stephen Biddle says the U.S. would rather take its chances with the Salang Tunnel.
BIDDLE: It increases our cost, but we're already spending an enormous amount of money.
CARBERRY: Money for repairs is what Afghan General Rajab wants from NATO. He's the chief of maintenance for the Salang highway, and he's frustrated by the damage NATO traffic is causing. General Rajab says that USAID spent $5 million last summer repaving the tunnel, sealing leaks and repairing the lights. But that pavement is already gone, water is pouring in, and the lights barely illuminate part of the tunnel. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.
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