GHAZNI, Afghanistan - Trucks full of steaming asphalt drove past Mike Bois, each load adding a few more feet to the black ribbon advancing across the barren landscape. Bois watched the procession, talking a mile a minute, faster than anyone has driven around here in decades.
"We're pulling out all stops, whatever it takes to get this project finished," said Bois, the superintendent of the Louis Berger Group, a New Jersey construction company that is rebuilding the 299-mile highway linking Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and its second largest city, Kandahar.
This is no mere highway, but a mission carrying huge symbolic as well as practical significance. Anxious to prove that President Hamid Karzai's government can deliver, the United States has accelerated the $250 million project. Bois is under orders to open the road by the end of the year and complete it by next year, when elections are scheduled.
"We're working two shifts, 20 hours a day," said Bois, his Maine accent punctuating the conversation with a few salty words. "Nobody is taking any vacation until the end of the year unless they want to be called a wuss."
The new road - much of it is already graded - is expected to have far-reaching economic impact by cutting travel times, improving farmers' access to markets, lowering prices of goods, and speeding up the security forces' response times.
This rebuilding of Afghanistan's principal highway would be challenge enough. All of the equipment, most of the skilled labor, and nearly all the materials had to be imported into this nation, devastated from more than two decades of war. The roadway had to be cleared of mines before construction could begin.
Making matters worse, the effort has been complicated by a crescendo of threats by Taliban fighters seeking to sabotage Karzai's government. Each time the guerrilla forces have stepped up attacks, the government has ratcheted up defenses.
In the latest disruption, a Taliban squad on Sept. 1 killed six construction guards as they were sleeping in their tents in Shah Joi, Zabul province. After the attack, some security guards quit. A critical gravel-crushing plant is being moved to a more hospitable village.
"After the attack in Zabul, we're very worried about the situation here," said Mohammed Yasin, a sentry outside Ghazni. Two days before, he and his squad exchanged gunfire with some attackers who approached the camp at twilight. Nobody was injured, but the attack was typical of the nearly daily harassment from suspected Taliban.
"Everyone's a little jittery right now," said Mike Staples, a Louis Berger spokesman in Kabul. He said the Interior Ministry had dispatched more guards. "They're not crack troops, but they're guys with guns."
The road project is not the only target of violence. In recent months, there has been an upsurge of attacks on humanitarian workers, mine-clearing crews, girls' schools, and local officials - anybody whose work who is helping to establish stability in which Karzai's government might take root.
Captured Taliban documents indicate it is their strategy to go after what they regard as soft civilian targets, hoping to scare off those who assist the government. Earlier this month, five Afghans working for a Danish aid agency were pulled from their car; four of them were executed, the fifth was left for dead. "Since September 2002, armed attacks against the assistance community have increased from one a month to an average of one every two days," said a spokesman for the relief agency CARE.
Authorities are responding gradually. Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali promised to speed up police training and to beef up security, especially along the Kabul-Kandahar road. "It's our top priority, the security of the highway," he said.
Maj. Mohammed Isaq, commander of an Afghan army detachment in Zabul, echoes the sentiments of many Afghans when he blames Pakistan for giving assistance and safe harbor to the Taliban operatives.
"I have been traveling to villages telling people the national army has arrived," Isaq said. "I say to the people, tell those Taliban to go back to Pakistan and kill the people building the roads there. Tell them to go to Pakistan and burn the schools there."
The Kabul-Kandahar highway was built 40 years ago with U.S. funds, but decades of neglect and war turned it into a rutted patchwork of potholes. Before the project began, the drive between the two cities took more than 12 neck-snapping hours.
"This new road will cut the time it takes to drive to Kabul by half, to six hours," said Mohammed Ismail, a Kandahar driver of one of the beat-up minivans that travel the route. "We also expect less damage to our vehicles. We all think it will be a big help for the people, for the country."
The Taliban rebuilt the first 27 miles of road out of Kabul, and the Japanese government is paying $25 million to reconstruct the last 31 miles before Kandahar. Louis Berger has hired five subcontractors - Turks, Indians and Afghan Americans - to rebuild the remaining 241 miles.
Though groundbreaking took place last year, the contracts were not actually let until this year. The American planners are defensive about criticisms that the work is moving slowly.
"They keep criticizing it," Bois said. "They say it's not done, and one magazine called it 'paper thin.' When it's done, it will match road conditions in the States." The two-lane road will have an asphalt depth of 8 to 12 inches.
Some of the delay was caused by daunting logistics: All the equipment, from rock-crushing machinery to bulldozers and trucks, had to be brought in by road or airlifted. The contractors are hauling 108,000 metric tons of asphalt over the Khyber Pass from Pakistan - about 90 trucks a day.
"We had to build asphalt plants and crushers," Bois said. "Try bringing an asphalt plant into Afghanistan, piece by piece. It seems like we're always missing a part. Actually laying the asphalt down is the easy part."
And then there are the unanticipated problems. Berger hired a helicopter to ferry equipment and staff along the road, but the chopper crash-landed last month and is out of commission - so are two engineers who were injured.
The Indian contractor has encountered delays bringing in its equipment through Pakistan, India's political rival. And then there are cultural misunderstandings about how strongly the Berger team regards the deadline to open the road.
"This Dec. 31 deadline isn't something we're trying to do," said Bois, who like much of his team, has worked on numerous projects overseas and is accustomed to unconventional working conditions.
"It's a done deal. It will be finished. The contractors are beginning to understand that. A month ago they were doing 300 meters a day. We're doing 1.7 kilometers a day now."