The U.S. and China have formed an uneasy alliance in the effort to build stability in Afghanistan.
In a valley long known as a Taliban haven, American troops live alongside Chinese road workers. The troops put their lives on the line protecting the workers. The workers put their lives on the line building a road the U.S. military desperately wants completed.
“Asphalt is ammunition,” says Lt. Col. Kimo Gallahue, commander of the 2nd Battalion of the 87th Infantry Regiment, quoting a phrase popular in the military. “Roads are one of the biggest needs in this province.”
U.S. soldiers like Lt. John Donovan, left, provide security for Chinese workers like Wang Shangkeui in Afghanistan.
The Chinese are in Afghanistan mostly to make deals. “This is business — we can work in Afghanistan or any other country,” says Wang Shangkuei, an engineer for China Railway Shisiju Group Corp., a state-owned company with a $50 million contract funded by Italian aid money to grade and pave 33 miles of two-lane road past Momaki village in Wardak province. But, he says, “if there’s fighting, we can’t do the work.”
What’s happening in Afghanistan is an extreme example of the way the U.S. and China must work with each other around the globe. China needs the U.S. to protect global trade routes vital to Beijing’s export-oriented economy. The U.S. needs China’s investment to boost unsteady, but strategically important, economies. Chinese companies were among some of the earliest to re-enter Iraq.
This month, the Afghan foreign minister visited China to generate interest in oil, gas and iron-ore concessions. He and his Chinese counterpart agreed to study ways to open up commercial traffic on their 47-mile shared border — located in a remote mountain region and largely inaccessible — such as building a road through the area.
China’s biggest foray into its neighbor’s economy so far is a $3 billion deal for two Chinese companies to develop the huge Aynak copper deposit in Logar province, south of Kabul.
As part of the deal, China Metallurgical Group and Jiangxi Copper Group agreed to build schools, clinics, markets, mosques and a power plant. The Chinese companies say they will also build a railway expected to link Afghanistan with China, via Pakistan, and open a rail route to the north from the mine. The Afghan government predicts the project will generate 6,000 jobs.
“It is very safe to conduct the project in Afghanistan because the Americans are guarding us,” says Pan Qifang, board secretary of Jiangxi Copper.
The Afghan Ministry of Mines recently said it will seek bidders to explore for oil or gas in northern Afghanistan and to exploit an estimated 1.8 billion-ton iron-ore deposit in the Hajigak mountains, located west of Momaki along the road that is now under construction. The Chinese are expected to be among the bidders.
As of 2008, Chinese companies had 33 infrastructure projects valued at $480 million under way in Afghanistan, not including the big copper mine, according to Chinese Commerce Ministry data.
Eleven Chinese aid and commercial workers have been killed in the country since 2004, scaring off some Chinese companies, according to the Commerce Ministry. Chinese exports to Afghanistan measured $152 million in 2008, down 10.4% from a year earlier.
China Railway Shisiju started work in 2006 on the new road past Momaki.
As the Taliban-led rebellion intensified last year, militants had free run of the valley. In June 2008, they kidnapped a Chinese engineer, who was rescued by Afghan forces after nearly a month in captivity.
The Chinese stopped work for almost three months because of the security situation, built a little more, then stopped again for the winter.
In February, a company of Lt. Col. Gallahue’s men — the first wave of the coming troop surge — entered the snowy valley and established a fragile peace.
Part of that mission means keeping the valley safe enough for road work to continue. “This road will provide easy access to Kabul,” says Capt. Matthew Thom, 31 years old, from Beaverton, Ore. The paved surface will also make it harder for the insurgents to plant bombs, the soldiers hope.
A platoon of U.S. soldiers occupies a hilltop outpost overlooking the Chinese compound, whose walls were chipped by bullets during an insurgent attack last year. The soldiers can keep an eye on the Chinese company’s quarry and offices.
“We work on the days when the security situation allows us to, and if it doesn’t allow us to, we stop work,” says Mr. Wang, the Chinese engineer. So far, the company has finished just 11 of the project’s 33 miles.
He says American officers call periodically to urge the engineers to speed up.
“They’ve got their end-state, and we’ve got our end-state,” Lt. Col. Gallahue says of the Chinese. “They may not be exactly the same, but they’re not working against us. At least not yet.”
—Kathy Chen, Davide Berretta and Sue Feng contributed to this article.
By Michael M. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org and
Shai Oster at email@example.com