Mission Afghanistan: Guarding important trade route - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Mission Afghanistan: Guarding important trade route

Parwan Province, Afghanistan - September 8, 2010

The weather is usually predictable this time of year in Afghanistan-- hot and dry. But as Vermont Guard soldiers planned a surprise inspection-- surprising weather. The soldiers faced a wet, three-hour convoy to the Salang Tunnel on a winding, steep road through the Hindu Kush Mountains.

The unannounced trip was to ensure that Afghan nationals hired to guard the Salang Tunnel are doing their jobs. The tunnel is the only major north-south route in Afghanistan which remains open year-round.

"Today is a security check," Vt. National Guard Maj. John Guyette explained. "About once a month we will come up here and check on security contractors."

Vermont soldiers must use caution en route to the Salang Tunnel. Even a slight driving error could send an MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, over a cliff and its crew to their death. And there's always the threat of roadside bombs.

"IED attacks are possible along any of these routes," Maj. David Long said.

And gunners watch overhead for insurgents who may try to toss a bomb inside the MRAP's turret as they pass through some of the smaller tunnels along the way.

The Salang Tunnel is at the top of a mountain that's four times the size of Vermont's Mount Mansfield. It's about a mile and a half long.

The Salang Tunnel is the lifeline between the Northern and Southern parts of Afghanistan. Keeping it safe and secure from insurgents and other criminals, as well as passable, is key to economic stability in the region.

"If you can imagine I-89 being significant to Vermont-- this route and this tunnel is significant to Afghanistan on a daily and hourly basis," Guyette said.

An estimated 15,000 vehicles pass through the tunnel daily. It's the major trade route and a major short cut. Without it, motorists traveling from Kabul to northern Afghanistan must go 190 miles out of the way, adding about 60 hours to the trip. The concern is that the Taliban or other insurgents may target the tunnel to disrupt the local economy. That would be a huge setback for the U.S.

Taliban insurgents often recruit the poor.

"Just by having a show of force here with the Afghan nationals and the Americans and coalition forces it helps solidify the security to improve the economic development here," Guyette said.

The Taliban has recently attempted and failed to attack the Salang Tunnel, according to Muhammed Masuum, one of the men who guard it.

"The insurgents have tried before and have wanted to come and we have made lots of efforts too," Masuum said.

Hidden posts in the mountains allow them to spot anything suspicious. And during the inspection the Vermont soldiers find that the hired Afghan security workers are doing a good job.

And Maj. John Guyette of South Burlington told them there's a new push to improve the Salang Tunnel. It's in serious disrepair from avalanches, accidents, and age-- it was built in the 1950s. The U.S. may invest millions to keep it open to create more opportunities for the Afghan people on both sides of the mountain range.

"So as long as we can improve the road networks and improve the security then the locals won't have an issue getting to market or going further out to sell their goods for a better price or into areas where they haven't had sales in the past before," Guyette said.

Hoping the Salang Tunnel will continue to be an economic engine and a gateway to peace.

Darren Perron - WCAX News

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