SALANG, Afghanistan—It had already taken Abdul Wali all morning to make the trip, hauling fuel some 200 miles from the border of Uzbekistan along a potholed highway. But the worst part of his journey was ahead: crossing the Salang Tunnel, some 2 miles above sea level.
On this day, traffic had already slowed to a crawl, as fog blanketed the north approach to the tunnel. A mud-flecked convoy of police trucks, bristling with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, idled near the entrance. Mr. Wali, wearing a crisp white shalwar kameez and blue checkered scarf, stowed his tool kit and teapot for the next stage of the daylong journey.
He looked on the bright side: At least the weather was good. “It takes two or three days to go to Kabul in the winter,” he said.
Considered a marvel of engineering when it was built decades ago, the Salang serves a critical role in this corner of the world. Carved from the rock of the Hindu Kush mountain range, it is the only viable land route linking the capital, Kabul, to northern Afghanistan. According to the U.S. military, some 80% of the country’s commerce passes through it.
But if it is Afghanistan’s main economic artery, the Salang Tunnel is in desperate need of bypass surgery. Opened in 1964 by the Soviets as a Cold War showpiece, the corridor is rapidly falling apart. Passage isn’t for the faint of heart—or the short of breath. Tire chains have torn apart the surface of the road. The original ventilation system was destroyed in a deadly tunnel fire. Over 6,000 vehicles travel through the Salang every day—on a road originally designed to handle 1,000.
The U.S. and Afghan governments are now pricing out alternatives to the tunnel, including digging a new shaft parallel to the existing one, or tunneling through another valley northeast of the Salang. Both options would take years, and hundreds of millions of dollars.