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Slow road from Kabul highlights China's challenge in Afghanistan
By Michael Martina and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - A new road linking the Afghan capital with a trade hub near Pakistan has been stuck in the slow lane since a state-owned Chinese company took the contract to build it two years ago, bedevilled by militant attacks and accusations of mismanagement.
The 106 km (65 mile) highway section running most of the way from Kabul to Jalalabad had been slated for completion in April 2017, and delays will further hurt Afghanistan's ambition to promote economic growth to quell a rising Taliban insurgency.
The setbacks are also a reality check for China, as it seeks to bring stability to its war-ravaged neighbour in part through extensive investment.
A giant copper mine remains untapped despite the involvement of another Chinese state firm, and Afghan officials and politicians are openly questioning Beijing's commitment.
"Overall, the company is far behind (on) the commitments they had given to us. We are not satisfied with the company's general performance," Mahmoud Baligh, Afghanistan's minister of public works, told Reuters, referring to the road project.
The work was contracted to Xinjiang Beixin Road and Bridge Group Co. Ltd. in late 2013 for $110 million, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is financing the road.
It is designed as an alternative to the overburdened and sometimes dangerous highway from Kabul east to Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province and a trade gateway to Pakistan.
According to Baligh, insurgents attacked the workers' camp several times at the start of the project, wounding some Afghans and halting work for three months.
A source familiar with the project, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said as little as 3 percent of construction was carried out in the first year.
Another person with knowledge of the project said Xinjiang Beixin changed its Afghan-based management this year because of a lack of proper oversight.
Xinjiang Beixin did not respond to requests for comment, and officials at China's embassy in Kabul declined an interview request.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he did not know about the project, but he added that China firmly supported Afghan reconstruction, had provided a large amount of assistance and had encouraged Chinese companies to get involved.
While China has been hesitant to get involved directly in foreign entanglements, its companies have shown a greater willingness to engage in countries where security can be challenging, including Libya and South Sudan.
The Kabul-Jalalabad road project underscores for China just how complicated Afghanistan can be.
A Nangarhar official said the highway crossed several districts where tribal elders had offered to keep it secure if locals were employed on the project. Instead, he said, the jobs went to Xinjiang Beixin's Kabul-based joint venture.
"They (the elders) are not helping, and are even not stopping the Taliban," the official said, referring to the militant movement waging war on the government in Kabul.
"If companies do not win people's hearts, then the project will never be implemented."
Xinjiang Beixin has joined forces with Afghan businessman Haji Kateb, who said he holds a 51 percent share in the Afghan partner. Kateb said Nangarhar communities were now on board and vowed the road would be finished.
"There was the danger of the Taliban and also a lack of community cooperation. Now elders have committed to help," Kateb told Reuters. "We are committed to finishing."
China wants a stable Afghanistan, fearing the spread of Islamist militancy to its far western region of Xinjiang.
It has been trying to broker peace between the Taliban and Afghan government and stepping up development funding as the United States and its allies scale back theirs.
Since the 2001 ouster of the Taliban to 2014, China gave Afghanistan about $250 million, and it has pledged at least another $327 million by 2017.
By comparison, nearly $110 billion have been appropriated in Washington for reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002.
China's commitment could rise substantially with the $3 billion Mes Aynak mine, one of the world's largest untapped copper deposits, but that has also been disrupted by Islamist militant violence.
State-run China Metallurgical Group Corp (MCC), which has rights to the minerals, has demanded royalties be slashed by almost half, and talks are stalled.
Amrullah Saleh, a politician and former chief of the Afghan national intelligence agency, said he feared the road project was another example of "loose commitment by a Chinese company".
"When they have a contract they can trash it or they can respect it. But they should also be mindful that we are neighbours," Saleh said.
The frustration comes as aid-dependent Afghanistan fears missing out on China's grandiose plan to forge trade and energy links to the Middle East, largely through Pakistan.
The ADB said that after four months of work with police and communities, and strengthening management and staffing to boost performance, the road project was now "in full swing".
"These measures have led to significant improvement," ADB project leader Witoon Tawisook said.
Baligh said he, too, was optimistic, while sounding a note of caution: "Road building projects are a very complicated issue in Afghanistan."