JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.
U.S. officials say you can measure success in Afghanistan by the country's growing network of roads. A noteworthy example is the vast beltway known as the Ring Road. It links Afghanistan's far flung provinces. From the air it looks like an American-style freeway with trucks and cars whizzing along. But on the ground Afghan drivers say the Ring Road and other highways are more like the Wild West. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent us this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Young drivers compete for passengers at the central taxi and bus station in the southern city of Kandahar, but there are few takers on this morning. A growing number of Afghans are afraid to travel by road.
Mr. ABDUL WARI (Taxi Driver): (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Taxi driver Abdul Wari says that's because the roads are no longer safe.
(Soundbite of engine)
SARHADDI NELSON: Not just from the Taliban and roadside bombs but from police officers collecting illegal tolls and from bandits seeking hostages. Abdul Wari says he'll only ferry passengers to Kabul from Kandahar during daylight hours, and only if he has a full car because he feels there's safety in numbers.
But he acknowledges the improving quality of the Afghan road network, and that's a view shared by many there. They say it is faster and easier to get around than ever before, especially in the south, east and west, where newly paved roads abound. Take the trip from Kandahar to Kabul.
Mohammad Ehsan, deputy chair of Kandahar's provincial council, says he could get there in less than five hours — about a quarter of the time it used to take him. But he never drives to Kabul anymore.
Mr. MOHAMMED EHSAN (Deputy Chair, Kandahar Provincial Council): (Through translator) I don't dare to drive because the security is so bad. As a politician, I'm a target. So I only fly.
SARHADDI NELSON: Trucking company manager Abdul Ghader says he has no choice but to send his drivers out on the roads. That despite the sometimes weekly hijackings of his convoys.
On this morning, the somber-looking manager in a flashy beige and silver turban is trying to secure the release of two of his drivers and three trucks filled with construction supplies. They were hijacked a couple of hours after leaving the western city of Herat.
He says the kidnappers are demanding the equivalent of $36,000, money he says the owner will likely pay. It would cost more to replace the trucks.
Mr. ABDUL GHADER (Manager, Trucking Company): (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Abdul Ghader says he asked police at a checkpoints along close to where the convoy was attacked to help. He claims the officers refused, telling him that getting the trucks and drivers back was his problem, which is why Abdul Ghader, like the drivers interviewed for the story, say they want Afghan and western soldiers to maintain law and order on the nation's roads.
U.S. General Dan McNeill says every truck driver may want a coalition escort, but it can't be done.
Mr. DAN MCNEILL (U.S. General): That's not my job. I'll do my best and I have escorted some convoys, but I don't have the force to spend everyday on that Ring Road. If somebody thinks that's the answer, then give us more force.
SARHADDI NELSON: What U.S. and NATO forces have been doing is stepping up efforts to revamp the Afghan police. They've started intensive training to improve their policing skills and teach them ethics.
In Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid has taken more drastic measures to stop the shakedowns. Last month, he fired some 200 police officers in a volatile district at the eastern edge of his province after complaints from drivers about the unauthorized tax police were forcing them to pay.
But the illegal tolls continue to be collected in many other areas.
: (Foreign language spoken)
SARHADDI NELSON: Here in front of the customs house at the edge of Kandahar, truck driver Zab Gul(ph) say he and his colleagues count on paying $120 to crooked cops each time they make a run between Kandahar and Kabul. That's twice as much as Zab Gul he earns per run. But to their employers it's simply the cost of doing business, a cost they pass on to their clients.
Another practice the truckers have adopted is to drive with one of their back doors open. They say it allows Taliban fighters hiding in the hillside to see that drivers are not carrying goods for the Western coalition or government. Otherwise, they run the risk of being shot with rocket propelled-grenades or blown up with remote-controlled bombs.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kandahar.