SALANG PASS, Afghanistan — Mohammed Ibrahim has seen his share of wrecks in his five years hauling NATO supplies through the treacherous Salang Tunnel.
A crash in the dank, claustrophobic tunnel can mean days of delay for drivers hauling everything from cotton to the international military coalition’s fuel. The rutted road, nearly nonexistent ventilation and frequent avalanches on both sides of the high-elevation throughway have cost hundreds of lives and incalculable amounts of money.
“Because the road is bumpy, the trucks sway and there would be accidents which block the tunnel,” said Ibrahim, who has been stuck on Salang Pass as long as four days due to crashes. “Definitely when there is a crash, it’s a loss (of money) for the driver and the company.”
With military materiel streaming north out of the country into Tajikistan through the 1.6-mile Salang Tunnel and NATO’s deadline to withdraw combat troops just 26 months away, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently awarded a $12.8 million contract to make short-term improvements in the tunnel, though a long-term solution for the crumbling Soviet relic is likely years and hundreds of millions of dollars away.
The so-called northern route became even more crucial to NATO after Pakistan shut down its border and access to its deep-water ports in November. The border has been reopened, but much of the withdrawal will still take place through the north and it remains a critical route for fuel.
The winding, dusty, partially paved route to the tunnel rises more than 5,000 feet through a landscape of towering whitewashed mountains and is littered with the twisted carcasses of the cars and trucks whose drivers fell victim to some combination of icy winter conditions, avalanches, lack of guardrails and reckless driving.
Salang is infamous among Afghans, who are well-versed in its deadly history; a trip through the tunnel is not taken lightly.
“We know how to survive, but passengers who are new get worried,” said truck driver Abdul Zuhoon, 25, who has been plying the Salang Tunnel for seven years, bringing goods from Kabul to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The Corps of Engineers awarded the contract to improve the Salang Tunnel to the Afghan company Omran Holding Group, which has until Sept. 30, 2013, to revamp the ventilation and lighting systems and pave the once- cratered road through the tunnel with asphalt.
It is a temporary solution, as Corps of Engineers officials acknowledge, with the improvements expected to hold up two or three years.
“It will buy them some time, but it’s not enduring by any means,” said Col. Alfred A. Pantano Jr., U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghanistan Engineer District-North commander.
A more permanent — and much pricier — option would be to build a concrete road that would be less susceptible to water damage, one of the biggest challenges to maintaining the tunnel’s road. Even better would be to build a new tunnel at a lower elevation, but time and money is in too short supply for a project that could easily run into hundreds of millions of dollars, Pantano said.
Engineers planning the project faced a big challenge: They lacked the original plans for the tunnel, so some of the planning was educated guesswork. In addition, the building contract calls for the road to be open 12 hours per day, as shutting down the tunnel for months on end would be too costly.
“We have to maintain traffic through this tunnel, so whatever we’re putting down (on the roadway) has to be driveable right away,” said Bruno Quirici, a civil engineer who helped plan the project for the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Salang contract is part of a big push by the U.S. military to divvy up remaining reconstruction money in a hurry and get all major projects completed by the end of 2014, when the international military effort is set to transition to a smaller advisory mission. The Army Corps of Engineers alone must wrap up about $6 billion in contracts over the next two years, and the Salang construction is tiny compared with many of the larger base-building projects in the works.
“This project with Salang is important because of its strategic value, but not necessarily because of its dollar amount,” Pantano said.
The tunnel was blasted through the mountain by the Soviets in the 1950s and ’60s and has seen little improvement over the last 50 years. The ventilation system and lighting are barely working, a situation made worse by unreliable power provided by aging generators.
As a result, the air in the tunnel is a murky soup of exhaust and dust that reduces visibility to near zero in places and carries dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, which has killed motorists trapped in the tunnel. Poor drainage allows water to seep into the roadway, freezing in the bitter cold of winter and causing the surface to buckle.
The tunnel’s width and height are inconsistent. It’s about 20 feet wide and 16 feet high at its tightest, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Many of the vehicles that pass through Salang are so-called jingle trucks, colorfully adorned and often dangerously overloaded big rigs that pass each other with inches to spare, sometimes clipping each other or the tunnel roof — crashes that can block the tunnel for days.
Since the tunnel opened, the mountain roads leading to it have compiled a grim record of deadly accidents, including a 1982 fire that killed some 170 people — sources vary on the number — and a series of avalanches in 2010 that killed at least 64 people, including some who were trapped in the tunnel.
The only way safety could get worse in the treacherous Salang Tunnel would be for Amanullah, a shepherd who guides his flock around the surrounding peaks, were to get his way.
He spoke indignantly, as overloaded big rigs roared into and out of the passageway.
“They are not allowing us to walk our sheep through the tunnel,” he said.