Tunnel Vision

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The U.S. is eager to rebuild the Salang Pass tunnel in Afghanistan. It’s a vital conduit linking Kabul to everything north of the capital. Just how important is it?

The site is located at high altitude and is a critical part of the infrastructure of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA); and as such shall remain open throughout the project duration

…says the U.S. government’s contract solicitation for the tunnel work.

The contract, worth up to $25 million, calls for new pavement, a new drainage system inside the tunnel, an electrical power plant to light and ventilate the tunnel, fuel storage for that power plant, and a camera system to monitor the whole thing.

Roughly 5,000 vehicles a day pass through the tunnel, including “cars, pick-up trucks, mini-vans, mini-buses, buses, panel trucks, and jingle trucks (both 3-axle and 6-axle tractor trailers),” according to the solicitation. Recently, traffic has been one way through the tunnel, switching direction daily over its badly-rutted pavement.

And there’s one more challenge to the tunnel: the air inside is pitch black, and filled with deadly carbon monoxide: “The electrical system at the tunnel does not currently work as designed [and] the contractor shall assume that no lighting or ventilation currently works within the tunnel and shall plan accordingly.” While there are other, longer routes through the Hindu Kush mountains, the tunnel is the lone route deemed protected from insurgent attacks.

Travelers witness cold mountain water pouring in through holes in the tunnel’s half-century old walls. Pavement has been chewed into a bumpy and muddy path.

When Pakistan closed its border crossings for several months, U.S. troops had to be resupplied via the tunnel instead. Fuel-laden trucks coming from the north had to squeeze through the tunnel with only inches to spare on each side.

The tunnel cuts travel time from north to south Afghanistan from 72 to 10 hours, and saves 190 miles (300 km) of driving. But wait times on each side of the tunnel are counted in days.

The 1.6-mile (2.6 km) tunnel reaches an altitude of 11,200 feet (3,400 meters). The Soviets and Afghans teamed up to build the tunnel between 1955 and 1964. It remained the highest tunnel in the world until the United States opened the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel through the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains in 1973.

“Security is critical to construction in Afghanistan, especially on roads and remote areas away from Coalition Force bases,” the contract solicitation notes. “The Contractor shall provide an appropriate level of security and protection to match the threat that exists in the project area and along the supply routes…The Contractor is responsible to search for, identify and clear all mines and unexploded ordnance (UXO)…”

The area is treacherous. Avalanches kill many on the road approaching the tunnel. The tunnel itself has been the site of many disasters, ranging from fires to explosions that sometimes result in the mass asphyxiation in the narrow, up-and-down passage. An estimated 1,000 Soviet troops died inside it in following a 1982 explosion.

Rebuilding a tunnel on the top of the world with heavy traffic, limited space, lousy weather and decrepit conditions – in the middle of a war zone – does present challenges, as the “sequencing” section of the solicitation spells out:

The project importance, approved hours of construction activity, volume of existing traffic, contract duration, physical constraints at the project site, and physical location all contribute to the necessity for a highly developed phasing and sequencing plan. The contractor shall maintain access to the project site for construction equipment and materials as well as private vehicles. This effort will be significant during the winter months and will require utilizing temporary placement of materials in order to provide a driving surface for traffic; and providing equipment and operators to ensure that the road accessing the tunnel is free from snow and ice sufficiently to maintain traffic. This shall be coordinated with construction activities and working hours. At the end of production the contractor shall restore the surface to a level that is capable of providing a passable surface for the high volume of traffic that will utilize the tunnel and access road during non-work hours. The contractor shall determine the best construction approach for incorporating any design provided herein, accommodating traffic thru the tunnel, working during evening hours, maintaining security, restoring the site to a drivable surface after work hours, protecting materials already placed, achieving production during extreme weather conditions, facilitating water collection and discharge around or through the site in order to maintain quality and traffic loading, mitigating and controlling dust; and procurement, delivery, and placement of materials readily available and those required herein that may need to be shipped in country. In order to accommodate traffic through the tunnel throughout the duration of the contract the contractor shall assume that a temporary road surface will be required as part of this scope of work. The temporary road surface should be an aggregate base course material that the contractor shall be responsible to maintain and keep operable until construction activities require that it be removed or cut down to create a level surface for drainage layer placement.

And you complain when a local road is closed for repaving?