Khalid Khan stares through the dusty window pane, down across the rooftops of the capital, and wonders if they really know where he lives.
Once on the front lines of the international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, the black-bearded contractor now sits idle _ cross-legged and quiet on the floor of the small hilltop home he shares with another family after he had to sell his own.
"They called again this morning," he says of the kidnappers who once held him hostage at the bottom of a well, repeatedly threatening to execute him. "They said, 'We're watching you. Do you know what we can do to you?'"
Khan was contracted to build one of the final links of a $2.5 billion highway that circles this mountainous country, linking a massive road network to Kabul like arteries around a heart. It is one of the most important reconstruction projects launched here since the U.S. invaded to oust the Taliban in 2001.
The soft-spoken 30-year-old had hoped to make a tidy profit. But after more than a year of work and two months of captivity, he is deep in debt, traumatized, and lucky to be alive.
And the road is still not done.
Khan's story underscores the tremendous obstacles the international community faces rebuilding in an active war zone, revealing how even the best-intentioned development plans can be sidelined without security. Khan's ordeal also shows how risky it is for Afghans willing to take part in that effort, and how little help there is for them when things go wrong.
"Multiply him by 1,000, and you'll understand why the entire reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is getting so bogged down," says Craig Steffensen, Afghanistan director of the Asian Development Bank, which is funding the final stretch of the so-called Ring Road.
Building a highway to connect Afghanistan's major cities has been a dream of developers for decades, one born half a century ago when this Islamic nation was ruled by a king.
The Ring Road fell into disrepair through repeated wars, and the northern sections were never built. After 2001, rebuilding it became a centerpiece of the international development operation.
The U.S. Agency for International Development estimates two-thirds of Afghanistan's people live within its path. The government believes it will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, boost trade, and pave the way for schools, hospitals and cheaper goods to serve isolated villages. Once complete, the asphalt will become a 21st century Silk Road, joining markets in Afghanistan to Central Asia, China and the Persian Gulf.
Today, nearly 90 percent of the 2,227-kilometer (1,384-mile) highway is done.
Much of the road, though, has become a front line _ a two-lane gauntlet running through some of the most dangerous terrain in the country.
Hundreds have died building it. Countless more have died traveling on it: blown up by bombs, beheaded at illegal checkpoints by guerrillas who see the road as a conveyor of supplies and spies for the international coalition.
When the sun goes down, Afghans say, the Taliban own it.
On paper, Khan's task was easy: lay the foundation of a 6 kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch of the road between two small northwestern villages called Ghormach and Douabi.
Khan was a subcontractor for China Railways Corp., which was contracted by the Asian Development Bank. He expected to be paid around $400,000 and make a profit of $20,000-30,000 after expenses.
The job began in August 2008, and immediately became arduous: it entailed cutting through rocky hills and destroying abandoned homes to transform barely existent goat paths into a gravel highway.
The region was so poor it had neither clinics nor schools. Most people drank water from rivers because they didn't even have wells. The road crews, by contrast, made lucrative targets. Residents "saw bulldozers and SUVs worth more than entire villages could make in a lifetime," Steffensen says.
The Chinese were slow in paying fuel for rented bulldozers, graders, and dump trucks, delaying the work, according to Khan. Chinese officials could not be reached for comment, but ADB documents obtained by The Associated Press confirm they were experiencing cash flow problems.
In November 2008, Taliban-linked militants abducted five Afghans from another subcontractor working for China Railways, killing one with a gunshot to the neck.
A month later, winter set in, freezing construction for months.
Khan had only been back on the job three days when a dozen gunmen with rockets and machine guns stormed into the house his company was renting in Douabi in April.
"Get down! Get down!" they screamed, herding Khan and 14 of his staff into a room at gunpoint.
The assailants wore dark gray police uniforms and army camouflage _ both easy to purchase in Afghan markets. They marched the group five hours through the darkness, cramming them into an isolated farmhouse.
Over the next few weeks, most of the other hostages were freed after their families paid ransoms worth several thousand dollars each. When Khan's kidnappers realized he was a partner in the construction company, his ransom swelled to $300,000.
For 10 days, he was held at the bottom of an 8-meter (25-foot)-deep well filled with chilly water up to Khan's knees. He slept by squatting. His skin shriveled. Dry bread was lowered to him on a rope. He drank the water around him with his hands.
He was allowed out a couple times a day, but only to beg his family to meet the ransom demands.
"I couldn't tell if it was day or night," Khan recalled in an interview. "So many times I died. I never thought I'd make it out alive, or see my family again."
During another week, he was hung upside down for hours, one foot tied to a wooden beam. He was slapped and beaten.
Steffensen says the kidnappers, though linked to local Taliban factions, appeared motivated by financial gain.
Yet they justified Khan's abduction as part of the wider fight against the government. They accused Khan of working for the U.S., telling him its money was "unclean."
"Why are you working for the nonbelievers?" they asked repeatedly.
"Why are you working for this government?" they demanded.
"Why are you building this road?"
"I told them we are poor people, this is just a small road," Khan recalled. "We are just trying to make a living, to build our country."
One night the kidnappers _ who had long beards, turbans and were always armed _ blindfolded Khan and took him by motorcycle to a hillside. They threw him down beside a dirt mound spattered with dried blood. It was the place, they said, where the Afghan engineer was executed and buried months before.
One of the militants leaned into his ear and whispered: "Tomorrow will be your last day on earth."
"Call your family! Tell them if they don't send the money, we're going to cut your head off and send it to them!" another screamed.
They fired gunshots past Khan's cheeks as he cringed, weeping.
Then they dragged him away.
By early June, Khan's family had begged and borrowed the ransom from friends and relatives from Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Cash in hand, they drove to Ghormach in six different cars, fearing ambushes on the way. They handed the money to tribal elders with connections to the kidnappers.
And two months and five days after his abduction, Khan was finally free.
Khan insists the ransom was $100,000. Other project officials put the figure at $30,000.
Steffensen says the amount is beside the point. "He suffered beyond imagination. His family shelled out everything they had to get him free, every nickel, that's clear," he says.
Khan sold his home in Kabul for $18,000 and turned to everyone with a stake in finishing the road for help. But nobody in his company, China Railways Corp., the Public Works Ministry or the Asian Development Bank was willing to pay back the debt. Continued...