Kabul-Jalalabad Highway is a section of A01 national highway, with a length of 143km, linking Kabul and Jalalabad, Afghanistan. This road follows the Kabul River Gorge for 64 kilometres (40 mi), in Taliban territory. The two-lane Kabul Gorge highway runs along 600 metre-high cliffs. Fatal traffic accidents often occur in this area, mainly due to reckless driving.
The road is of utmost strategic importance, facilitating trade, humanitarian aid, reconstruction efforts and the return of Afghan refugees. However, the highway, which was a good standard asphalt road when it was completed in 1969, has deteriorated into a gravel road, making the journey long and tortuous. Reconstruction of the road is now under way, with funding from the European Commission (EC) for its construction and from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Authority (Sida) for its design. The difference in altitude between Kabul and Jalabad is approximately 1200 m, and the road passes through some extremely mountainous terrain. One of the main technical challenges for the design team is to ensure an alignment for the road that fits with the existing alignment and structures whilst maintaining a reasonable standard throughout.
Portions of the road may be temporarily closed due to road work or inclement weather. The 40-mile stretch, a breathtaking chasm of mountains and cliffs between Kabul and Jalalabad, claims so many lives so regularly that most people stopped counting long ago. Cars flip and flatten. Trucks soar to the valley floor. Buses play chicken; buses collide. The mayhem unfolds on one of the most bewitching stretches of scenery on all the earth. The gorge, in some places no more than a few hundred yards wide, is framed by vertical rock cliffs that soar more than 2,000 feet above the Kabul River below. Most people die, and most cars crash, while zooming around one of the impossible turns that offer impossible views of the crevasses and buttes.
During snowfalls the highway remains closed and vehicles full of passengers can be waiting for hours in the bitter winter. The Kabul-to-Jalalabad road was paved for the first time by the West German government in 1960. In the 1980s, it was almost entirely obliterated during the insurrection against the Soviet invasion. In the decade that followed, when the Taliban and other armed groups fought to control the country, the road was a blasted moonscape. The craters were so large that taxis would disappear for minutes at a time, only to reappear as they struggled to climb out. Many roads have been dubbed “most dangerous,” but the 65-kilometer stretch of highway from Jalalabad to Kabul has more claim than most, snaking through Taliban territory. But it’s not the threat of insurgency that makes Highway so dangerous. It’s a combination of the narrow, winding lanes that climb up to 600 meters through the Kabul gorge and the reckless Afghan drivers trying to overtake the heavily-burdened haulage trucks.
The road is difficult and it’s a nightmare in the wet or dark (or both). The cars zoom at astonishing speeds, far faster than would ever be allowed on a similar road in the West, if there was one. Like Formula One drivers, the Afghans dart out along the sharpest of turns, slamming their cars back into their lanes at the first flash of oncoming disaster. Most of the time they make it. Perhaps the gravest threat, apart from speed of the cars, is the slowness of the trucks. The massive tractor-trailers that move cargo in and out of Pakistan are often overloaded by thousands of pounds. They cannot move fast; if they are climbing one of the gorge’s thousand-foot hills, they cannot move at all. They get stuck. They fall back. They fall over. So the cars and their drivers stack up behind them, angry and impatient, and rush and maneuver and pass them at the first chance. And so the cars crash, one after the other.