About the Author: James O'Gara is a Civilian-Military Coordinator in the Office of Afghanistan & Pakistan Programs, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
In Afghanistan, the challenge of getting agricultural goods to market is heightened not only by the security environment, but also by a lack of quality roads, which, in turn, prevents reliable access to markets. This inability to get perishable goods to market drives the development of an opium economy. For one group of communities in northwest Kabul province, a paved road empowered them to develop viable alternatives to growing poppies.
Comprised of 21 villages, the Shakar Dara (literally, “Sugar Valley”) corridor northwest of Kabul is a prolific source of apricots, peaches, and grapes. For as long as anyone can remember, the area has been served by a single, deeply rutted dirt road for as long as anyone can remember. “That road,” notes local official Haji Mohammed Ibrahim, “was only good enough for a donkey.”
Residents banded together and approached the local Community Development Council about funding a road paving project. The proposal appeared to be a match with the Good Performer's Initiative (GPI), a fund administered by Afghanistan's Ministry of Counternarcotics, which first rewarded Kabul Province for reducing poppy cultivation and, later, for remaining poppy-free.
Former Mujahedin commander Mullah Taj Muhammad, now a Wolesi Jirga member who lives in nearby Khaza village, championed their cause. The proposal ultimately received USD 597,000 in GPI assistance. An additional USD 487,000 came from direct funding from the U.S. and U.K. governments. All told, the new road is 7.7 km in length, and connects the villages of Kochkin, Karizmeer, Dolana, Balakarez, Charkhil and Ghaza.
We asked Taj Muhammad what difference the project had made in the lives of villagers. “Before, people did not have access to the city, to the big fruit markets like the one in Khayar Khanosh,” he said. “There used to be huge transport costs to get fruits into the city markets. A sack of apricots [now costs half as much] to move to market.”
Taj Muhammad is quick to note the economic benefits of the project itself: “The builders [employed] more than 3,000 local people to help build the road. The value of the land here has gone up. Even the head of a bank is building his home here. And now, the security forces can get to the villages when they have to.”
Wazir Gul Anis, a local agriculture department representative, put it more succinctly: “It is a dream to have the road here.”
When we traveled the road on a recent day, traffic was varied: a large truck shared the highway with a taxicab, a three-wheeled scooter, and at least one herd of Turki sheep, which followed the road for a hundred yards before diverting to a pasture area.
A light rain started to fall as a group of several boys came walking down the road past a tire repair stand, whose owner, Muhammad Taher, had his own take on the benefits of the road: “A trip to a hospital was 90 minutes on a terrible road. Now it is 30 minutes,” said Taher. “For a pregnant woman, that is a big difference.” That is exactly the kind of difference the Ministry of Counternarcotics and INL want to make.