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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

KamAZ Makes Tracks for Kabul

Itar-TassKamAZ trucks, such as this one in the Afghan mountains, are specially designed to navigate Afghanistan's rough terrain.
We won't be stopped by bullets or explosions,
We haven't turned off the path, forward crawls the KamAZ.

So goes the folk song "Of KamAZ Truckers," penned by Soviet war veterans about their treks in supply convoys across the rugged Afghan terrain.

If KamAZ has its way, the song will gain new relevancy in the months to come.

KamAZ is revving up to ship what could be hundreds of new trucks to Afghanistan as part of an international effort to rebuild the war-shattered country. The truck giant is one of a dozen or so Russian companies looking to get a piece of the $4.5 billion being offered by the United States, Japan and other countries to get Afghanistan back up on its feet.

KamAZ thinks it is better qualified than any other automaker interested in kickstarting the Afghan transportation sector. After all, who else has built a vehicle specially adapted to the Afghan terrain?

"After our experience in Afghanistan during the war, we made a number of changes to the trucks that have been retained in all our models," said KamAZ spokesman Nail Galiulin, referring to the decade-long incursion that ended with the Soviet army withdrawing in 1989 in defeat.

He said about 6,000 KamAZ trucks are still being driven in Afghanistan, which in itself is reason enough to push ahead with plans to resurrect a now-defunct network of service centers, warehouses and personnel training facilities set up before the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996.

KamAZ general director Ivan Kostin initialed a cooperation agreement with the Afghan social works minister, Abdul Fazal, last week during a visit to Moscow by interim Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. The agreement envisions the renewal of shipments of KamAZ trucks and parts to Afghanistan and KamAZ's participation in restoring the network of service centers.

Karzai's visit netted a total of 17 memoranda, mostly in construction and trade. Rosneft signed an agreement with the Afghan Mining Ministry, and Energomashexport signed a memorandum on shipping power equipment to the country. Other deals came from Vodostroi, Tsentrdorstroi, Selkhozpromexport, Stankoimport and Mashinoimport.

Most of the infrastructure that existed in Afghanistan before the Taliban came was built by the Soviets, so it is only logical that Russian companies should help rebuild it, Karzai said.

"Russians built our buildings, they destroyed them, so now they can build them again," he told reporters.

The Russians in years past also provided Afghanistan with tons of arms and other military equipment -- aging hardware that Kabul is eager for Russian defense companies to repair.

The Soviet Union started working with Afghanistan in the 1950s, mainly developing gas reserves and its agricultural and transport sectors. Moscow opened a credit line back then to Kabul, and much of that debt has yet to be paid.

By the end of 1996, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Afghanistan owed Russia $8.7 billion, 90 percent of which was overdue, according to the Economic Development and Trade Ministry.

Russia's trade with Afghanistan has gradually declined since the Taliban took charge. Between 1995 and 2001 it fell from $23.6 million to $5.2 million, according to the State Statistics Committee. Afghanistan exports mainly foodstuffs, leathers, astrakhans, carpets, furs, citrus plants, dried fruit, nuts and olives. Russian imports include machinery, vehicles, metals, parts, electronics, household items and dry milk.

At least one Russian trading company, Vostokrustorg, has already reopened its representative office in Afghanistan. "Today we can sell many things and buy shipments of traditional Afghani exports in return," Vostokrustorg's Afghanistan representative Anatoly Afanasyev told the Vremya Novostei newspaper. He did not elaborate.

The distribution of the $4.5 billion in international donations is to start later this year, and only then will the Russian companies learn which of them will get financing.

In the meantime, Russian executives are rushing to draw up memoranda with the Afghans.

Karzai's deal-signing trip came weeks after a Russian trade delegation -- which included KamAZ officials -- paid a fact-finding visit to Kabul.

Tatneft oil company officials discussed creating a chain of filling stations "during smoking breaks at meetings with Afghani officials," a Tatneft official said.

Unified Energy Systems proposed finishing construction of a power plant in Tajikistan that could be used to supply Afghanistan with electricity.

And KamAZ saw strong interest in its services, a welcome sign for a company that after years of struggling finally made a small 42 million ruble profit in 2001.

"When it came to transport, the Afghan side was not interested in any of the other companies that had come," Galiulin said. "They talked to us right away because they have used KamAZ trucks and know that they are best suited to the Afghan terrain."