The Strange Benefits of Paving Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 4/25/2008 · 21 comments

Asphalt != IEDs

In one of the trashier John Waters films (a pleonasm, I know), Desperate Living, Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole) is an insane, rich, murderous housewife on the run from the law. During her escape through the woods, before being accosted by a cross-dressing traffic cop with an underwear fetish, she exclaims her hatred at the forest around her:

You know I hate nature. Look at those disgusting trees stealing my oxygen Oh, I can’t stand this scenery another minute! All natural forests should be turned into housing developments! I want cement covering every blade of grass in this nation. Don’t we taxpayers have a voice anymore?

That was the first thing I thought of when reading David Kilcullen, the grand poobah of anthropologically-enabled counterinsurgencies, explain the way roads decrease violence in Afghanistan. Then I remembered how much I mocked Ann Marlowe for suggesting the same thing. Clearly this deserves some further examination.

Did you know that the one thing keeping NATO and the U.S. from securing Afghanistan was a nice, thick layer of asphalt? I certainly didn’t. In fact, when a commenter in that Marlowe post claiming to be “a soldier on the ground” in Afghanistan repeated the causation between road-paving and fewer IEDs, I noted some contradictory evidence and asked for further data:

I’m afraid the data we have available doesn’t support the correlation between roads and security. One risk monitoring firm actually claims that good roads have actually made insurgent activity worse… Now this doesn’t specifically address the number of IED incidents; unfortunately the data I could find on that was really vague (aside from claims that the Taliban “rule the roads“), with the exception that Ms. Marlowe claims. Indeed, given the risks to PRTs and local construction teams, it wouldn’t make sense for paved roads—which require a lot of lingering time and present workers as easy prey to roving insurgents—to be constructed in a high security risk area. From my understanding of areas of road construction vis-a-vis IED attacks, an area needed to become safe enough for workers to actually complete construction.

I don’t doubt that once roads are paved, IEDs are harder to plant (fewer suitable hiding places), and they’re easier to find. So in that sense I was being unclear in my original phrasing in the post above. I meant to say that there is no positive causation, at least with the unclassified data we have on hand: nothing I know of points to “more concrete = less bombs” as a security strategy.

My pleas for more data to support the connection between roads and security went unanswered. Indeed, subsequent research has reinforced the dual-use dangers of roads in Afghanistan—going as far back as 2004, westerners and aid workers either avoided the main highways or traveled along them at unsafe speeds because of the danger not just from IEDs, but also bandits, militants, corrupt police, and plain old Taliban out for some white people to murder. That situation has invariably become worse, especially in the south but also in eastern provinces like Kunar and Nuristan.

I would challenge any aid worker or PRT official (and this is a serious request) to tell me how roads have improved the safety in their province. Can non-military groups travel around paved roads without fear of attack? Do VIPs travel via road, helicopter, or airplane whenever possible? These are far more important indicators of the security value of road construction than vague assumptions that roads are a way to reward villages as if they were dogs in training.

Indeed, Kilcullen starts his post with an allusion to the Romans’ use of roads in building Empire. The analogy saddens me, as I really don’t think we’re building an empire in Afghanistan, and the roads were also used by the many barbarian hordes to invade, sack, and eventually dismember Rome. Not the best analogy to draw.

But Kilcullen has field notes! To my horror, he claims the techniques used in the Surge in Iraq were first developed during his trip to the Kunar Valley in mid-2006. This was the time when Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was probably hiding there and directing attacks on U.S. and GoA personnel, and when the area was known as “enemy central” for its extreme concentration of violent extremists. Besides which, how would a trip to a rural and isolated valley with years of violent resistance to American rule indicate anything about tweaking urban counterinsurgency tactics, anyway? Argh.This is a side note.

Let’s excerpt those notes a bit.

The PRT’s main project at present is the opening up of the Korengal Valley, to assist in clearing out a former major stronghold of the enemy, and to bring development and governance to the area. The main push is centered on driving a paved road through the valley to allow forces to secure the villages, driving the enemy up into the hills…and affording freedom of action to civilian agencies so that they can work with the people to extend governance and development.

The road project involves a series of negotiated agreements with tribal and district elders – the approach the PRT is taking is to make an agreement with the elders to construct the portion of the road that runs through their tribal territory. This has allowed them to better understand the geographical and functional limits of each elder’s authority, and to give the people a sense of ownership over the road: since a local workforce has constructed it (and is then paid to protect it) they are more likely to defend it against Taliban attacks. Also, the project generates disputes (over access, resources, timing, pay, labor etc) that have to be resolved between tribes and community groups, and this allows Afghan government representatives to take the lead in resolving issues and negotiating settlements, thereby connecting the population to the provincial and local administration and demonstrating the tangible benefits of supporting the government.

This tells me things I did not know before:

  • The Taliban attacks roads.
  • The Elders control the Taliban.
  • The Afghan government’s local representatives are effective at moderating tribal disputes.

None of these assertions are born out by reading press reports of the many challenges facing development efforts. Which doesn’t mean they’re not true, just that Kilcullen doesn’t really explore why his experience (or assertion—I can’t tell which it is at this point in his writing, as it seems more theoretical than experiential) is at such variance with the years of published anecdotes on the topic. For the record, where he was is a very pretty place:

Kunar, looking East
Credit: Panoramino user Joelpac, in his beautifully shot gallery of Kunar

Kilcullen continues:

Once the road is through and paved, it is much harder to place IEDs under the tarmac surface or on the concrete verge, and IEDs are easier to detect if emplaced. The road provides an alternative works project to prevent people joining the Taliban, the improved ease of movement makes business easier and transportation faster and cheaper, and thus spurs economic growth, and the graded black-top road allows friendly troops to move much more easily and quickly than before, along the valley floor, helping secure population centers and drive the enemy up into the hills where they are separated from the population – allowing us to target them more easily and with less risk of collateral damage, and allowing political, intelligence, aid, governance, education and development work to proceed with less risk. Road building is not a panacea, but the way this PRT and the local maneuver units are approaching this project is definitely a best practice

Again, it is difficult to parse this fully having never been to the Kunar valley, but this simply does not track with the non-military reporting coming out of the area (and what of the experience with roads and IEDs in Iraq?). Unemployment is usually not a primary reason people seem to join the Taliban, though it is a reason they’ll contract out their services to a militant group—which is not, it is important to note, the same as “joining the Taliban.” In many cases, better roads have made it easer for the “Taliban” (Kilcullen doesn’t seem to realize that drug and timber smugglers use these roads as well, and they can be just as violent and capricious) to push further into communities and launch attacks.

Is it good tactics to move along a valley floor? I could be missing something, but one of the sticking points in “The Bear Went Over the Mountain” by Les Grau was the ease of setting up killboxes at either end of a valley used as a hiding place by mujahideen. This happened again and again, and accounted for a surprising number of Soviet military successes. Did traveling along a well-marked road on a valley floor in a U.S. military convoy suddenly become a good idea since 1989?

It is comforting to see Kilcullen admit road building is not a panacea, because it is not. But that is certainly the implication of his essay here.

And a further sidenote is really quite necessary: I think road building is a fantastic idea. As he says, roads really do spur economic growth and enable a more thorough interconnection between communities. Roads are a great idea for their own sake, in other words—people need infrastructure. But pursuing road construction as a security strategy is just shortsighted and seems to confuse causality: as has been pointed out before, construction is only viable once security has reached a certain minimum state to ensure workers aren’t held ransom or murdered. And won’t insurgents innovate? That has been the hallmark of the fight so far: they innovate tactics much faster than we do. Relying on huge static construction projects to undermine them is simply shortsighted—that’s the point I’m driving home here.

Let’s look at Kilcullen’s next entry.

[the Brigade Commander] said that parties of enemy still infiltrate in this area, coming down by night from the hills on the Pakistani side, crossing the river on truck inner tubes, spending a few days attempting to do armed propaganda work in the villages on the Afghan side of the river, then moving up into the hills to avoid our patrols. Many of them congregate NW of the river, just beyond the [XXXX] valley, in a district we rarely visit and which remains a pocket of insurgent activity – but one the Brigade tolerates because there is no access from this isolated valley to the rest of the population and their focus is on securing the bulk of the population rather than clearing terrain, and because they lack the forces to secure every part of the province and have therefore sensibly “triaged” their AO.

This tells me the biggest problem is a manpower shortage, and not the presence of too few paved roads. Sure, the roads make it easier to move through cleared areas (and in cleared areas the economic benefits of roads are certainly much more apparent), but if there really is a problem with the Taliban attacking roads as Kilcullen said, then how could they be constructed in a non-secure area as a security strategy? There is something missing from this account, and I’m not sure what it is.

Like the other Regional Command-East commanders, he is all about development and governance. Having fought a hard kinetic fight to gain control of the province in 2005-6, during [Colonel, former Brigade Commander] Mick Nicholson’s time, the focus has now shifted to economic and political issues, with ANA/ANP doing the bulk of the security work, supported by a smaller US footprint and by local agreements and neighborhood watch forces.

Again, dipping into popular mass media reports from 2007 and 2008, I do not understand where a Brigade Commander could say with a straight face that his biggest concerns in Kunar are electricity generation and crop rotation. In the paragraph above, Kilcullen was saying there remain pockets of insurgent activity and known border crossings. Are all these reports about bombings and combat in Kunar just false? Did the war there end in 2006, and now all that’s left are adventure-seeking reporters busy hyping small gun fights as epic battles?

To repeat: I am missing something here.

As for his 16 key points… well, very few of them flow from the narrative he constructs in bits and pieces from his two field notes excerpts. This again doesn’t mean they aren’t true, but rather that there is no evidence in what he writes to suggest they do. There is no information about the impact roads have on cross-border infiltration, especially considering his assertion just paragraphs above that there are still routine border crossings by militants. Similarly, if the BCT is stretched so thin it can’t go after known areas of insurgent control, how is it that they can drive all militants into the hills? This is probably the case for some villages near the FOB, but for the whole province? This is a doubtful claim.

The points about access are wonderful, but they don’t address the security issue. Even if a convoy can go 80 mph along a road and thus a platoon can cover a vast territory, that only applies to the road itself. If the insurgents are fanning out into the countryside, then you’re left with a classical rural insurgency—and neither Nepal nor India have had much luck in combatting theirs.

From what I’ve seen of the roads in this part of the country, which are often hacked out of mountainsides, the difficulty of hiding an IED is a strange claim to make. Even along a valley floor, unless all scrub and rocks have been cleared from the area (which in some cases is true), there are still plenty of places to plant IEDs. If this only applies to broad valley floors, that is a limited test case. More convincing are reports that villagers simply do not wish to plant IEDs but are coerced to, so they choose to plant them in obvious places to facilitate discovery.

In Kilcullen’s conclusion, there are a lot of pretty words, but no discussion of causation. He saw well constructed roads, he got solemn assurances that the local BCTs and PRT were focused on governance and construction, and he seems to have drawn from that the idea that roads spur security gains, and thus counterinsurgency success. He also seems to dismiss the dual-use problem of road building:

Thus, the mere building of a road is not enough: it generates some, but not all of these effects, and may even be used to oppress or harm the population rather than benefit it. Road construction in many parts of the world has had negative security and political effects, especially when executed unthinkingly or in an un-coordinated fashion. What we are seeing here, in contrast, is a coordinated civil-military activity based on a political strategy of separating the insurgent from the people and connecting the people to the government. In short, this is a political maneuver with the road as a means to a political end.

This is entirely different than the argument he was laying out above, and not at all connected to the practice of road construction he described—the relationships and social flows relayed secondhand from PRT and Brigade staff talked about benefits in a general and theoretical form, and not any concrete ones. There is no reason here to think that better governance and better security are positively related to road construction. They certainly coincide and might even correlate. But there is no reason to assume causality.

And this is just bad form:

In summary, like the Romans and other counterinsurgents through history, U.S. forces in Kunar, in a close and genuine partnership with local communities and the Afghan government (most especially, a highly competent and capable Provincial Governor), have engaged in a successful road-building program as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication and bringing economic development, health and education to the population.

The Roman experience in exercising control over restless outer provinces, and the experience with how their roads were turned against them, can hardly be the lesson Kilcullen wants drawn from his analysis. It is good to see him cautioning against generalizing from this one area (a caution Ann Marlowe would do well to follow), but at the same time, the security benefits of road building are totally oversold and not backed up by evidence, only theoretical discussions of how roads should function within a larger counterinsurgency campaign.

None of this is meant to knock the very real benefits of road construction. Roads are one of those critical pieces of infrastructure that make the rest of the nation-building project go a lot more smoothly. In fact, there should be a great deal more road construction all around. But the military benefit of roads here is simply ridiculously oversold.

This Topic Continues:

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Alan Moore April 29, 2008 at 2:38 pm

You appear to make the mistake of treating security and development as two seperate goals instead of related and intertwined issues. Road improvements and paving of the Pech Valley road, in the Kunar Province, has resulted in a dramatic decrease in IEDs which means both Afghans and US personnel traveling the road have benefited from improved security. However, the primary reason for the road construction projects (Pech, Korengal, Dawegal, Waygal, and Shuryak Valleys) in the Kunar Province are the direct/indirect economic benefits and access to commercial, health, education, and governmental centers for Afghans which is hoped will foster further development through NGOs or Private investors. It is hoped development will continue to undermine the insurgents ability to operate in the Kunar Province resulting in improved security in the region. To put it simply, there can be no development without security, and in the case of the Kunar Province, there will be no security without development.

Joshua Foust April 29, 2008 at 2:43 pm

I think you misunderstood me. My only problem with road construction is selling them as a security strategy. “Roads = Security” is not an argument that is backed by the evidence Kilcullen lays out here, nor is it consistent with other conflict regions involving significant underdevelopment.

Roads in and of themselves, however, are vital toward creating a long-term sustainable solution to the general problem of government legitimacy and economic development.

I’m not sure which Kunar you’ve been to, though, but the militancy there is not caused by underdevelopment. If it were, then all the construction by the Soviets… and us… would have paid off. Development does not bring security if the conflict driver is religious or political ideology, it simply creates bigger targets. The gains in Kunar have been socio-cultural and political, and not in any real sense economic. It’s important not to confuse them.

Alan Moore April 29, 2008 at 3:33 pm

Road improvements alone do not make up a security strategy, but are a critical part of any security strategy because of the very real link between development and security. I agree there have been socio-cultural and political gains in Kunar, but disagree about the lack of economic benefits. Direct economic benefits include the income that local Afghans receive from working on the road projects. Indirect benefits include the construction of shops and gas stations along the roads which are seeing increased traffic (fruits and vegetables from Jalalabad are now being sold in Nangalam because of the improved roads). I can agree that the insurgency was not caused by underdevelopment, however I believe development will be one of the keys to eliminating the insurgency in the region. To that end the Kunar PRT currently has approx. $40M in projects underway to foster that development.

Harry Rud May 9, 2008 at 11:42 pm

As an aid worker in Ghor province, I can’t say from my own experience that roads have had any bearing on security. Not that there are any paved roads in Ghor.

I’m suprised, though, that while going to great lengths to challange the asumption that roads improve security (a critique I’d agree with), you are so willing to accept that roads bring improved economic benefits, without offering any evidence for this. They may well help with ‘nation-building,’ but that is not the same as saying they directly help improve the lives of a majority of impoveished rural Afghans. Have there even been any studies into the economic and social impact of road building n Afghanistan?

Michael May 13, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I’ve never been to Afganistan, but the obvious means I can imagine is making access to markets faster and more reliable.

Alan Moore May 15, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Harry, my experiences are limited to the Kunar Province in Eastern Afghanistan and I profess no knowledge of the situation in Ghor. As the Chief Engineer for the Kunar PRT from March 2007 to March 2008 I saw firsthand the economic, social, and security impacts associated with the construction of roads, bridges, schools, clinics, wells, government centers, etc…. I mention the economic benefits in an earlier post and attempted to present the link between security and development. Development which provides better access to markets, education, healthcare, and government centers has had a significant impact on society and security within the Kunar Province. Hopefully I was able to get accross my main points that security and development are inter-related and that roads were a critical aspect of addressing security and development issues within the Kunar Province.

David May 15, 2008 at 7:34 pm

Roads have benefits but they also have risks. This is particularly true in parts of eastern Afghanistan with forests. Pushing roads up the Pech valley opens the region to the type of logging that has done so much damage further up the Kunar basin and in the highlands above the lower Pech. In some communities elders have been opposed to extending roads because they fear that they won’t be able to prevent their trees from being logged. They know that only the well-connected and crooks will benefit, not their people.

Another problem with the roads being constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Afghan Engineering District is the incredible expense per kilometer. The construction costs are wildly inflated. Moreover, the contracts are designed in a way that the contractors have no incentive to finish them in a timely manner. Obviously there are security and other concerns that differ from projects elsewhere but the contract completion dates that the Corps uses for its projects are sheer fiction and there’s nothing to stop a contractor from walking away from a project when the going gets tough.

In the mountainous valleys of eastern Afghanistan, the main lines of communications follow the courses of rivers and streams. However, several of the Corps projects traverse high mountain passes that will be blocked many months of the year and will be treacherous the few months they are open. The highest is a route linking eastern Nuristan to the Parun valley where the provincial center for Nuristan is located. The pass is over 15000 ft, several thousand feet higher than the Salang.

And there is absolutely no consideration to providing any funds, training, equipment or support for maintenance. In the rugged terrain of eastern Afghanistan, roads quickly deteriorate without an aggressive maintenance schedule.

The Corps of Engineers manages many of its projects long-distance with its project managers seldom visiting the project.

In Nuristan Province, one contractor, Amerifa, won four multi-million dollar road projects in that province alone. Prior to those projects it had never built a project for more than a couple of hundred thousand dollars. The Corps loved Amerifa because their office in Kabul had a few talented engineers who speak good English and produced good drawings and project documents.

The Corps operation is immune to criticism because it is so difficult for anyone to get out to the field to investigate what is happening. Moreover, with roads being seen as the panacea for what ails the mountainous regions of eastern Afghanistan, suggestions that more thought, careful planning and integration with other development efforts by both the Afghan Government and other donors should be considered when undertaking these projects is met with indifference or a response that the effort is too far advanced to question it, and surely these issues were factored in when initially designed.

Joshua Foust May 15, 2008 at 10:31 pm


If roads equal fewer IEDs, why are my repeated pleas for data to back up this claim met with silence? I’m being quite honest — if paving roads really does have a measurable impact on IED emplacement, then there must be data out there. I mean, the State Department and U.S. Army just wouldn’t claim something they assume to be intuitively obvious without anything to back it up… would they?


You’re onto something there. You’re also missing the salient fact that someone high up probably decided roads were good, so the theme of the month is that roads are good. That is why you see almost the same exact phrasing about road construction in disparate news sources, from the same government sources, in all the news accounts about the value of roads.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 8:13 am

David makes some very good comments and provides good detail on the issues with AED roads in Kunar and Nuristan Provinces. Unfortunately, the forests of Kunar were decimated by logging before any road improvements were made and the government is attempting to regulate the logging and cut down on lumber smuggling. AED uses a different approach to contracting and road building which has resulted in costs per km of $400k to $800k. The Kunar PRT was able to get similar roads contracted for $250k to $300k per km. AED engineers and the Kunar PRT were working together to address many of the project management issues and things were getting better. Hopefully that will continue. Finally the maintenance issue is a big one and I believe the solution is to support the governments public works departments with funding for equipment, material, and personnel to repair and maintain the roads being built.

Joshua, IEDs are not the only security issue in Kunar and I am afraid you are missing the forest for the trees. What data would suffice?? Who have you asked for it?? Don’t ask me for a study because all I have is my experience. I can tell you, as can any Afghan in Kunar, that before the Pech road was paved there were IED attacks. As the road was paved the IED attacks stopped. But do not be fooled into believing that paving the road will guarantee there won’t be future IED attacks on the paved roads. Anyone who claims that is seriously mistaken. We should all realize you have to address the root causes that drive people to make, deliver, and implant IEDs in the first place. The development planned in Kunar was aimed at changing the dynamics that allows insurgents to operate at all, albeit with less support than most people believe. In my opinion, that support is based less on ideological beliefs and is more of a tribal/family or economic issue. Building the roads and bridges connects the different communities/tribes to each other and to the government. Building the schools and clinics allows people to see that life is getting better. When Afghans see that the benefits of participating and being a productive member of society are greater than assisting the insurgents with the destruction of that society, the support for the insurgents and their ability to operate is reduced, which brings security. It’s not as simple as I lay it out here and the results are not assured, but things are moving in the right direction and that is the story that needs to be told.

The decision to build roads was based on direct observations that roads foster development and economic improvement and is not simply a “theme of the month”. Maybe you need to talk to the media about why their stories are all the same?? There are some notable exceptions, but my opinion is that the media spends more time trying to cover the “kinetic” (combat) operations rather than focusing on the “non-kinetic” operations (development and governance).

Joshua Foust May 16, 2008 at 10:39 am


I’m not sure I am. My complaint here is the same as yours: the over-focus on the magical ability of paved roads to somehow prevent IEDs. I don’t doubt that once roads were built, the security environment changed — it always does. But from my own practical experience, security has to be established for the construction to take place, and the political and economic development that follows (Harry Rud’s comments notwithstanding) further solidifies and deepens those security gains.

I focus on that one tree because that is what lazy reporters do. And my complaint is with their coverage of the topic. That is why their stories are all the same. They are lazy mouthpieces.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 12:05 pm


Paved roads will not, by themselves, prevent IEDs. With regards to the Kunar Province, building and improving roads (and bridges, clinics, schools, etc.) are a critical part of ensuring “security” (and development and governance) in the province. When the general security situation is improved then the incidences of IED attacks, and all other forms of attack, will be reduced.

It is does not have to be a linear progression where “security” has to be established before “construction” can take place as you state. Construction can and has been conducted in parallel with security efforts in the Kunar Province with very positive impacts. I have no doubt that in some situations it may very well need to be linear, but you state it “has” to be established first and that is where we disagree.

There are very few absolutes in life and I think you have been uneccesarily harsh on people like Kilcullen and Blosser. In the first case, Kilcullen has visited Kunar and has firsthand knowledge of the situation. This firsthand knowledge coupled with some pretty astute analysis makes him a player who has provided some pretty valuable insight (this is not a paid advertisement).

In the second case, Blosser has a unique understanding of the issues in Kunar, also is a very astute thinker, and works hard to ensure development, governance, and security issues are properly addressed. No offense to the media, but I don’t think they will ever capture the true extent of the positive impact she has had.

Ian May 16, 2008 at 12:26 pm

The discussion here is fascinating, and although I don’t have any particular expertise to add to it, the things I’ve been reading about the topic lead me to think a couple of things:

1) Afghans in southeast Afghanistan, for whatever reason, want roads. Whether that’s because it enriches the regional power elite through mismanagement and corruption, or because it does bring actual economic benefits to a lot of people, there’s a demand.

2) The US is doing its very best to make it look like it’s meeting that demand. They flood the projects with money; don’t oversee it carefully, letting it run inefficiently and slowly (up to 800k per km, per Alan’s comment); and then, and only then, they make the roads a piece of the “counterinsurgency” for the purposes of Western media consumption (aided by reporters with little-to-no local knowledge who must take it all on faith).

Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the whole situation, but it does look like this is a concerted PR campaign being run by Colonel Pete Johnson, the commander of U.S. forces in southeast Afghanistan. The PR campaign serves two purposes, to make Afghans in the southeast feel like they’re getting something, and to demonstrate the the military is not just banging down the locals’ doors. But everything I’ve read so far makes me think that the rise of the Neo-Taliban and their gradual success over the last few years has had little to do with successful development projects.

David May 16, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Concerning road construction costs in northeastern Afghanistan, yes the AED expenses are a travesty but the prices that others are paying for construction including the kinetic units and PRTs are distorting the economy as well.

Following is an excerpt from a well-informed 2007 study assessing costs in the FATA where labor costs are roughly the same as in Kunar/Nuristan. The terrain and security issues aren’t too different. This amount seems to be an appropriate standard for assessing costs in this part of Afghanistan:

“The cost of road construction in the FATA is higher than anywhere else in Pakistan. This high cost—$123,000 for one kilometer of blacktopped road and $86,000 for a kilometer of shingle road—is driven by higher transport and raw material costs and by costly administrative fees.”

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 1:43 pm


Kunar is actually in the Northeast, vice the Southeast, and don’t recall a COL Johnson who was either commanding forces or running a concerted PR campaign of any sort in RC East or the Kunar Province.

You are correct that there is a demand for roads, but that demand is based on a number of things. I wouldn’t reference the local shura leaders, district governors, and provincial governor as the “regional power elite” or say they are being personally enriched by the projects. But that is probably because I am an optimist.

I have had many folks, in the US, tell me they had no idea we were even building roads, bridges, schools, clinics, wells, government centers, etc. They hear very little about the efforts by the numerous other governmental and non-governmental organizations to improve the lives of Afghans. They do hear about the combat operations and the deaths, but hear nothing about the benefits that are reaching the population of approx. 380,000 in Kunar. For example, the Pech River road has had a direct influence on the ability of expectant mothers to get to the hospital in Asadabad improving the chance of a live birth. I do know that many reporters came through the Kunar Province and that the improvements are being reported in some areas. But in my opinion the successes and improvements are undereported, whatever the reason.

Frequent monitoring of the progress and the quality of all the projects, coupled with good schedules and cost breakdowns allowed us to effectively manage the contractors and “protect” the project from corruption. As an example, buildings that were not being built correctly were torn down and rebuilt, at the contractors cost. I don’t believe the poor quality was the result of corruption, but in most cases are the result of societal issues (ie. cement is expensive and has to be imported from Pakistan therefore the mentality was to use cement sparingly). This issue was addressed by managing expectations at the start of projects, providing training by qualified personnel, and establishing an adult construction training center in Kunar.

The comments that projects are not overseen carefully, run inefficiently, and run slowly are, for the most part, incorrect. There are differences in the way projects are contracted, based in large part on the funds utilized, and managed. The $800k per km was an outlyer (spelling) and probably has more to do with the difficult location of the project (Nuristan) and security situation in that area. I won’t claim things are perfect but a lot of folks are working hard to keep things on track and get the projects done right. Not sure what a road in the US would cost….and wonder how an average cost of $300k per km for a DBST road built on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan stands up. The work might be similar but the conditions are very different which would have to be accounted for if a comparison study was done.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 1:56 pm


Some of the roads through FATA are already paved aiding the ability to transport material into the region and thereby reducing the costs. For example the road to the Nawa Pass is paved on the Pakistan side and is an unimproved dirt road on the Afghan side. All material and equipment comes from or through Pakistan which also increases the cost.

I don’t believe you can compare costs for construction in FATA with the costs in Kunar. If the costs in FATA are higher than elsewhere in Pakistan due to higher transport costs, higher raw material costs, and higher administrative fees then it is not unreasonable to expect this issue to be worse as you cross into Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust May 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm


Both Kunar and Paktika (or Ghazni, or Khost) are all in RC-East, and bear consideration together to a certain degree. People on the ground just as much as you, like Harry above, worry that the benefits of road construction are so uneven as to place doubt on their overall utility. Like you, I disagree, but I don’t think you can write that off so flippantly. I would love any data you might have or can point me to that would help address this — I’ve found it a bear getting in touch with PRTs from CONUS.

Uhm, there is a Colonel Pete Johnson in Khost who at least some news outlets say commands U.S. forces in the area. He’s the new one from the 101st… hence (probably) Ian’s belief that the recent wave of news about this topic originates from him.

Look, no one is here to deny the progress in Kunar, or in Khost or anywhere else. I know you read this blog, so you know that my constant complaint is the neglect paid to the real goings on in Afghanistan in American media. And you’re right, too, that most coverage is heavily biased on the fighting, and not on the reconstruction.

But that doesn’t mean that simply stating progress happens is real. Similarly, where is this monitoring? I don’t doubt the PRTs have their own monitoring systems in place, but this doesn’t make it into the public sphere. Such monitoring would surely shed some light onto the actual role roads play in the reconstruction effort, wouldn’t it?

Actually a very recent study of the national and local trends in Afghanistan (pdf, large) by CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman makes it a point to complain about the lack of trend-monitoring in public, unclassified government reports. That is a major issue, and gets at the underlying complaint I have here: the public data sources we have say things are falling apart as investment flags and insurgent attacks increase. Clearly the government wants to make the case otherwise, and it has every right to — in fact, I would expect it to.

But simple declairing it is better doesn’t mean it is. This isn’t about who is working hard or who is being earnest. Good intentions are great, but they don’t get at effectiveness, or at addressing root concerns and causes. Those are critically and universally missing from coverage here, including from Kilcullen (who relies on his reputation, rather than facts and argumentation, to stake his claime).

My sole complaint is the highlighting of IED attack reduction as a direct effect of road paving. It just does not make any sense generally, and especially when considered alongside the experience with IEDs in other countries. It could be the case, I don’t deny that. But no one is making that case.

And, to bring it out to one of the macro-trends I am tracking here, such a glaring logical hole gets completely glossed over by reporters who seem perfectly comfortable service as PR firms for the government. That’s them being too lazy to do their jobs. Imagine the reaction if the PRT just sat in its base and never made any patrols or met with any locals or contractors, and simply distributed CERP funds with no followup or thought behind it. That’s the kind of professional negligence I’m talking about here.

Ian May 16, 2008 at 2:55 pm

Sorry, northeast. With regard to the corruption issue, I don’t want to rain on your optimistic day, but if there are numbers like 300k or 800k/km for road building passing through these provinces, we can make a safe bet that some percentage of that is used for lining pockets.

This may be my mistake, but there are several recent articles out that name Colonel Peter Johnson as the guy in command of six provinces eastern and southeastern provinces. A couple of them are focused on roads-here’s today’s Reuters piece that editorializes about roads without indicating that it’s opinion, and then quotes Col. Johnson for support:

Better roads are essential not only for the economy — so that farmers and merchants can get produce to markets more easily and importers can bring vital foodstuffs into the landlocked country — but also for security, since police and the army can get more quickly to remote, unstable areas.

Paved roads also make it much harder for the Taliban to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — nearly 750 of which detonated across Afghanistan last year, causing hundreds of deaths. Planting them on pot-holed, dirt tracks is easy.

“I can’t tell you how important roads are,” said Colonel Pete Johnson, the commander of U.S. forces in southeast Afghanistan, where development lags central and northern areas and paved roads are minimal.

“If we pave roads, there’s almost an automatic shift of IEDs to other areas because it makes it so much more difficult for the enemy to emplace them … Roads here mean security,” he told Reuters in an interview last week.

Cursory googling reveals that even $800k/km for roads would be a huge bargain in the west, where the number is in the millions. So fine. I also have no doubt that roads make life better–that’s a no-brainer and I do not dispute what you are saying about the improvements in pregnant mothers reaching medical help, etc.

I think what is at issue, and what Josh is particularly incensed by, is that roads are being presented as a successful counterinsurgency strategy. Especially when that presentation is at the expense of far more nuanced approaches (like the Human Terrain Systems among others) that have been denigrated by the very journalists who are talking up roads as a grand solution to IED bombs. The stats simply haven’t been presented to bear that out. Rather, the opposite looks true.

In short–roads are nice, I’m sure, but they won’t win the war.

Alan Moore May 16, 2008 at 4:11 pm

Joshua and Ian,

As stated before my experience is with the Kunar Province and I have tried to convey the fact that my opinions shared here are related to that area alone. My apologies if I indicated otherwise.
I have little knowledge of the people and efforts being undertaken outside the Kunar Province. So I would not be surprised to hear there is a COL Johnson commanding forces in RC East.
To further fan the flames, I do agree with everthing attributed to COL Johnson in Ian’s last post. It is tougher to plant IEDs in paved roads, but not impossible. The fact is that people are generally lazy and therefore will look for the easiest/quickest way to accomplish something. Thus they would rather plant IEDs in unimproved dirt roads because it is easier.
I state again my belief that roads, by themselves, are not a counter-insurgency strategy but in the Kunar Province they are an importance component.
I also believe Human Terrain Systems (if I undestand the types that Ian has mentioned) are also an important component of a counter-insurgency strategy.
My opinion is that roads will not win the war but they are part of a comprehensive strategy that will bring security, development, and governance to the Kunar Province.
Thanks to all for the healthy and professional discussion.

Kunar Worker May 29, 2008 at 7:19 am


I just happened upon this discussion while researching another issue and wanted to comment. I’m in Kunar now and involved in the road construction effort. You all have made very good and accurate points. I would like to point out some others.
Comparing PRT and AED roads cost is comparing apples and oranges. The specifications, testing and QA/QC requirements are very different. Most PRT roads, if paved, are DBST. AED does not approve of DBST paving. Sub-grade, sub-base and base requirements are also very different.
Kunar and Nuristan Provinces are not like the south-eastern provinces (areas around Khost, Jalalabad, etc). The best analogy for our mission is imagine running a 10-meter road through the heart of the Alps with a labor force from the 19th century and then throw in some guerrella fighters on the high ground to keep things from getting boring.
David – Your comments about…

“The Corps of Engineers manages many of its projects long-distance with its project managers seldom visiting the project.

In Nuristan Province, one contractor, Amerifa, won four multi-million dollar road projects in that province alone. Prior to those projects it had never built a project for more than a couple of hundred thousand dollars. The Corps loved Amerifa because their office in Kabul had a few talented engineers who speak good English and produced good drawings and project documents. ”

…are extremely mis-informed. The Corps regularly visits the road projects in the Kunar Province and when the widening of roads in Nuristan premits, they will go there as well. The Corps has hired local nationals with engineering background and education to visit the projects daily. Additionally, any comment that implies that the Corps is in “love” with any contractor CONUS or OCONUS is incorrect. The Corps advertises contracts and you have to go to the prom with the one that asks you.
Additionally, efficiency is measured on a different scale here than in the rest of the world including Iraq. Project schedules are worthless. The phrase “Allah willing” is the first Pashtu you learn when you arrive. Remember your workforce is still in the 19th century.
One aspect of this mission that has not been discussed in this forum if the intangable. The Corps requires the contractor to maximize the local workforce in the construction of these roads. This means Afghans from several villages work together. Nothing like this has every occurred in these provinces. The last thing these people came together to work on was kicking the USSR out. Building roads through Kunar and Nuristan is building community relationships. Several problems over property rights, water rights and the like have come up during the road construction projects as one might expect. The Corps has taken a “hands-off” approach to most of these to allow the Afghans to settle the issues among themselves. The Corps only intercedes when the contractor is at fault or abusing a situation. The Afghans are actually “taking ownership” of the road construction in their areas. So much to the point that I have seen villages that have come to the defense of contractors under attack by insurgents.
The saying goes “In Afghanistan, its me vs my brother; my family vs your family; our village vs their village and our province vs their province”. Most of the people in the Kunar and Nuristan Provinces have never been more than 5 km from their home. Building these roads causes them to think beyond their village, their valley and their province. Maybe someday they will begin to think about their country. On that day, there will be on more IED’s in Kunar. That is the day we are working for.

Ian May 29, 2008 at 7:56 am

The last thing these people came together to work on was kicking the USSR out.

The saying goes “In Afghanistan, its me vs my brother; my family vs your family; our village vs their village and our province vs their province.


I think you’re unwittingly making the opposite argument. To the contrary, the moment when the locals start “to think about their country” could also easily mean the end to any hospitality at all for the Americans and NATO.

Intangibles are great, and inspiring-sounding, but the metrics say things are deteriorating right before the eyes of the foreigners. See Barnett Rubin’s posts, quoted recently here, about the 36% jump in IED attacks over last year in RC-East. I am also slightly suspicious of comments about community spirit and taking ownership, when at the same time you say that the approach is now “hands-off,” which I take to mean that a lot of things now happen behind an opaque cultural and linguistic veil. Does anyone really know what’s going on behind it?

An excellent book, not about roads but rather the temporary work programs to offset opium eradication, is Opium Season. Josh’s description:

naïve-but-hopeful project to re-engineer southern Afghanistan’s social and economic networks on a shoestring budget slowly unravel[s].

God forbid this is the story in Kunar or Nuristan, but it is a warning against ignoring basic social and political realities in favor of the bright shining blacktop road.

David May 30, 2008 at 2:19 pm

Dear Kunar Worker,

Thanks for offering up your insights on the situation in Kunar and Nuristan. Much of what you describe holds some interest but much also reflects your espousal of conventional wisdom that gets passed on from one foreigner to another without much reference to reality.

First of all without getting into details, I have had extensive engagement with AED construction projects in the region. Concerning their efforts to QA/QC projects, a while ago they had contracted with a company to provide engineers to do this on AED’s behalf in locations where it wasn’t possible for Americans to travel for various reasons. Issues arose as to the independence of those engineers who had to rely on the road contractors for living quarters, food and security when they were in the field.

Through extensive interaction with AED personnel it was painfully clear that they had little understanding of the terrain through which the roads were being designed. For example, their decision to route the road between eastern and central Nuristan over such rugged, high-altitude terrain made absolutely no sense.

Through the initial survey and design phases of the road projects in Nuristan, AED professional staff based in Kabul never traveled to any of the project areas because of security concerns. AED had one project manager based at Mehtarlam in Laghman who had responsibility for two projects in Nuristan but none of the Amerifa projects or the ABC project in the east which were handled out of the Kabul office. That may have changed.

As for your remarks about the “intangibles,” in your last two paragraphs, they do not reflect the reality. This applies particularly to your last paragraph you start with, “As the saying goes.” It is a specious characterization of the bases for affirming commonality and competition among the people of the region. For a quick and profound lesson on Afghanistan, I suggest that you Goggle the term ‘qawm’ and check out the article titled “Afghanistan and the Qawm: . . . ” at It may prompt you to re-consider what passes for knowledge about the way things work among the Afghans. As for most dwellers of the region never having been more than 5 km from their homes, I’d recommend that before you make such sweeping statements you make an effort to talk with Afghans themselves. You may be surprised by what you find. Reality in Afghanistan is far more interesting and complicated than the aphorisms that pass for fact among foreigners who are working in the country.

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