Introducing the toll road to Afghanistan

Miranda Kennedy Aug 7, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: The Bush Administration’s has its hands full with the insurgency in Iraq. So it’s looking for places it can cut the Pentagon’s workload. It’s handed over some of its responsibilities in Afghanistan, but the White House also wants to wean that country off the billions of dollars of international aid it receives each year. To do that Afghans need to develop a viable economy. They need to foster some profitable industries. And they need to start paying taxes. Miranda Kennedy has more.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: It’s a hot, grueling afternoon at the toll plaza on the Kabul-Kandahar highway.

Chris Anderson is an advisor to Afghanistan’s finance ministry. That sounds like an exalted position. Often, as today, it means standing out on the tarmac, trying to convince Afghan drivers to pay a toll to use the highway.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Can you please explain to him that I understand these people need to be somewhere, but unfortunately if he wants to use this road, there is no choice but to pay.

It’s an alien concept in Afghanistan, and the government just started enforcing it a couple weeks ago. So they’re having some teething problems.

ANDERSON: “I understand what you’re saying sir, unfortunately everybody wants to pay tomorrow, and what happens is they come along tomorrow and say let me pay tomorrow so . . .”

Anderson is talking to a young guy who runs a taxi service between Kabul and some outlying villages. His van is loaded with half a dozen villagers, a stack of very weathered suitcases, a bicycle and a couple sheep. Because he’s driving a commercial van, he’s supposed to pay $20 for a monthly pass. But he offers up every excuse in the book not to shell out, including a sick child in the back.

But Anderson is having none of it.

ANDERSON: “He must make a decision right now to either pay this money or to turn around, and if he refuses then we will have to ask the police to come and tell him to move.”

The traffic police appear. And half an hour later, our supposedly-penniless driver finally gives in.

ANDERSON: He bought it, he bought the sticker.

KENNEDY: There he is, with his blue sticker!

ANDERSON: It was nothing to him to waste 20 minutes arguing with us rather than buy the decal.

KENNEDY: But he had the money.

ANDERSON: He had the money the whole time.

If Anderson and the other guys working on the project can convince drivers to pay up, the toll will bring in $30 million to maintain the road for the next couple years.

The US government paid to rebuild the highway, but the funding stops there.

Anwarul Haq Ahady, Afghanistan’s finance minister, says the international community pays almost half of Afghanistan’s operating budget. But the government promised it would cover its own costs five years from now.

ANWARUL HAQ AHADY: This is something that you have to pay in order to organize a society. You have to pay your police force. We have to pay 70,000 soldiers, the judges, the administrators, et cetera, et cetera.

Today, fewer than 10% of Afghans make the kind of wages that would require them to pay income tax. The shortfall has to come from customs duties, rental taxes and airport and road tolls. But most Afghans fiercely resist to having to hand over cash to the government. Most of them associate it with corruption.

Out on the side of the highway, a line of trucks has formed. It’s the line of drivers committed to not paying the toll. They know that all they have to do is wait, stick around longer than the foreign advisors.

At 3:30 each afternoon, the advisors and toll collectors pack it up for the day. The government hasn’t yet hired enough workers for a second shift, so the truckers start up their engines and cross onto the highway, home free and $20 richer.

In Kabul, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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