Construction begins on the $28 million bridge that the United States is building over the River Oxys between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Scheduled to be finished in May 2007, the bridge will strengthen Afghanistan as the link between energy-rich Central Asia and the rest of the region.
KAI RYSSDAL: You've pretty much got your pick of geo-political hotspots these days. Lebanon and Israel. Iraq. And southern Afghanistan. The Taliban's been making a comeback there. More than 10-thousand coalition and Afghan troops are on the ground. Fighting village by village. Up north it's more of an economic battle. The U.S. is rebuilding schools and fixing roads. And opening up trade routes. Miranda Kennedy reports.
MIRANDA KENNEDY: When businessman Daood Mousa tries to import equipment into Afghanistan, he has to brave bandits, negotiate inaccessible mountain passes and bombed-out stretches of road. And that just gets him to the bank of the River Oxys for his most angst-filled moments: when he opens the containers. He recently had a large order from the World Bank for vehicles.
MOUSA: From Tajikistan it comes by ferry. The first thing is they break into the container. Some of the parts were stolen before they landed in Afghanistan. They knew what parts are valuable and they just took those.
His SUVs probably werent cannabilized all at once. They're picked apart each time the load hits a checkpoint.
MOUSA: The warlords at the border have to be appeased, something has to be given to them.
KENNEDY: So every time the cargo changes hands it's another opportunity for corruption.
MOUSA: Exactly, for theft, corruption.
Now, the US is building a $28 million bridge between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, which will mean one less theft in the import chain. Afghanistan has always been a trading nation from the days when the ancient Silk Route twisted across Asia. Once it's finished in May, the bridge will strengthen Afghanistan as the link between energy-rich Central Asia and the rest of the region.
This morning, construction workers for the Army Corps of Engineers are boring into the river mud with a huge drill, sending up swirls of muck. Colonel Chris Toomey, head of the army corps in Afghanistan, says the project will be the beginning of a new era of legal trade. But the most important result of the project, he says, is the customs booths they're building at either end of the bridge.
CHRIS TOOMEY: When the trade is regulated, you're going to get more of it. You are going to have large companies that are going to be much more comfortable with doing business in Afghanistan if they know it's coming through a legal trade crossing point rather than having to smuggle it across a river somewhere.
For the first time in Afghan history, the government will be able collect customs and transit duties on imports. Until now, the government hasn't had any way of making money to cover its own costs.
TOOMEY: The revenues that are generated from this, that's where I see it's gonna really help the local Afghan. They're going to be able to continue to improve the roads, improve the infrastructure, do all those things — What we call the middle ground.
Toomey believes it's a classic case of If you build it, they will come. He expects subsistence farmers on either side will start trading their cotton and corn crops once they can efficiently truck the products across the border. And that will create other economic opportunities.
TOOMEY: Do you see where that tower is, over there? Right behind that you can just see the tip of a roof. That is a hotel, an Afghan hotel, that has started because of this bridge in anticipation of the traffic. When we go back up there you'll see a hotel, and you'll see a restaurant and a gas station already started on the Tajik side.
But the business community is more skeptical about Afghanistan's potential to become a regional trade hub. Nasir Shansab, an Afghan trader, welcomes the bridge but says it's not going to be able to put a halt to the endemic corruption.
NASIR SHANSAB: I think it's a little bit over-dramatized that the bridge will solve all the transit problems. I don't think it will happen.
And Shansab has another concern. He worries the bridge could become an easy trafficking route for Afghanistan's biggest export — heroin.On the Afghan-Tajik border, I'm Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.