Shahr-i-Safa, Afghanistan — AS a hair-thin line on a map, Afghanistan's national Ring Road looks easy enough to conquer.
But tell war-hardened Afghans that you're going to travel its entire 1,373-mile length unarmed, facing winter and a raging insurgency, and they look at you like you're completely mad.
Five years after the fall of the Taliban, it shouldn't be such a challenge.
Rebuilding the two-lane highway that connects Afghanistan's major cities has been a centerpiece of the U.S.-led effort to transform the nation. It is so important that Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said that President Bush once demanded daily updates on the roadwork from Kabul south to Kandahar, the seat of power under Taliban rule.
U.S. grants have paid for rebuilding a third of the road, according to Afghan government figures. Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iran are responsible for repairing other sections, a rare case in which Washington and Tehran are working toward the same goal. Officially, the $1.05-billion project is almost finished.
But as with many things in Afghanistan, there is a chasm between the rhetoric and reality.
Some of the best stretches of the road are among the Taliban's favorite killing grounds. This fall, Canadian troops led the biggest ground battle in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 57-year history, in part to regain control of a stretch of highway west of Kandahar. The NATO offensive cleared the insurgents, but guerrillas and highway robbers still prey on travelers in many other places.
About 40% of the road isn't finished. Some sections are nothing more than muddy tracks through the country's lawless Wild West, where you can drive for hours without seeing another vehicle fishtailing and backsliding through the muck along with you.
The only way to understand the condition of the road and grasp what it says about Afghanistan is to drive it.
The trip took my interpreter, driver and me seven days, inching along slippery edges of steep cliffs, wandering in the wilderness without road signs, suffering two flat tires, a ruptured radiator and a spinout on mountain ice.
On the way, we managed to avoid a Taliban ambush, a potential kidnapper or highway robber, a suicide bomber and a gunman who fired close enough to take off one of our heads.
I KNEW some of the Ring Road all too well. I traveled it for weeks in the early Taliban era a decade ago, when years of war and neglect already had reduced the highway to patches of broken asphalt connected by dirt, rocks and ruts. A trip that would take a few hours on a proper road was days of torture, the speedometer straining to break 10 mph as the vehicle crawled over shell craters and pond-sized potholes.
This time, I would be leaving from Kabul with interpreter Wesal Zaman and driver Zyarat Gul. A quiet and calm man, Gul had gotten us home safely from other terrible places.
Before starting out, we visited three experts at the Economics Ministry to find out what we were in for.
Sayed Arif Nazif, the ministry's director of design, told us that the building of the road began in the mid-1970s. The United States helped, but most of the money came from the Soviet Union and Arab countries.
Farmers used the road to get their produce to market. Afghanistan became the world's largest exporter of dried grapes, apples and other fruit. It also sent an assortment of nuts.
"In those days, in terms of our roads, we were much more advanced than neighboring countries," Nazif said. "But because of the wars and other problems, all our roads were destroyed."
Soviet troops and tanks poured down the Ring Road to invade Afghanistan in the dead of night on Dec. 25, 1979, setting off a decades-long tailspin from which Afghans are still trying to recover.
The rebuilding of the road is supposed to help revive the economy and break down ethnic differences by allowing Afghans to travel more freely. Although dried fruit exports are 20% of what they were before the wars, reconstruction is showing benefits, Nazif said. This year, the repaved road allowed farmers to get fresh pomegranates, grapes and apples to Kabul's airport, and the first few flights delivered the produce to wealthy Persian Gulf states.
I had a more pressing question: "How long do you think it would take to drive the whole Ring Road?"
Nazif shifted in his seat. "Take the length of 1,373 miles, and divide by an average speed of 50 miles an hour," he said.
"That sounds like we could do it in maybe four days," I replied, trying to do some quick mental math. Nazif smiled and nodded, but we both knew Afghanistan was a lot more complicated than that.
Before we started, we took some precautions that are prudent for any trip into the countryside: We loaded the car with two spare tires, a shovel, bottled water and snacks. And we made one rule: If Gul, an ethnic Pashtun like most of the Taliban, saw anything on the horizon or felt anything he didn't like, he should turn around without pausing to ask us.
A small victory