Thinking Critically About Road Construction

by Joshua Foust on 5/6/2008

There is a good reason to think that the concept of “paved roads equal improved security” is a coordinated multi-agency media campaign by the Army. Seemingly out of nowhere, the message began popping up in the accounts of brief embeds by mostly American reporters, from State Department employees at Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Kunar to an unnamed Brigade Commander, again in Kunar, and now to a Brigade Operations Officer in Khost. And let us not forget Ann Marlowe making the same case months ago, only in reference to Ghazni and Laghman. So what does that BOO have to say?

“When it comes down to it, roads are very, very significant,” said Brigade Operations Officer Major Dan Morgan in an interview. “If you have a paved road here, you have fewer improvised explosive devices (IEDs),” he said, referring to the deadly roadside bombs the Taliban and other militants use to target US and Afghan convoys. “Once you have a road you can also get Afghan forces to where they need to be more quickly, which improves security. As some have said: where a road ends, instability begins.”

In Afghanistan, where much of the country is semi-lawless and inaccessible, trying to draw communities away from the influence of the Taliban depends on building roads, so that locals can easily reach markets and join the economy.

However, the problem is that building roads takes time and costs huge amounts of money, up to $250,000 per kilometre for asphalt, according to US engineers. And US or Afghan forces need to ensure security in an area before construction can begin. “It’s not quick, that’s for sure,” said Morgan. “It takes vision and it takes tactical patience.”

Reuters just showed more reason and forethought than half a dozen American reporters on the same topic. While Major Morgan insists it is roads that provide security, Reuters quite correctly notes that roads cannot be built without security already in place—otherwise, it is an enormous, expensive failure. Which is, to paraphase Kilcullen, not a COIN best practice.

Reuters notes, too, that roads are a really great idea: the economic and political consequences of constructing them is enormous. And once they are in place, “Afghan” forces (Morgan forgot to mention that Americans use the roads too) can travel around a lot faster. The trick is, and this gets forgotten in all this road talk, the Taliban and other militant groups can use the roads to get around a lot faster too. And paved roads are still fixed—much like in Iraq, they can be “laced” with IEDs and simply detonated when Army vehicles travel past. The paving enables rapid insertion and extraction.

But don’t take my word for it. When Ann Marlowe asserted that paved roads in Ghazni had prevented IEDs—a curious claim, given the U.S. experience with IEDs along paved roads in Iraq—she neglected to mention that those same roads served the Taliban equally well.

It was here in the Qarabagh district of Ghazni that a local bus, chartered by the Koreans, was stopped en route between Kabul and Kandahar and the foreign aid workers were taken away… The road was resurfaced and secured by American troops after the Taleban were removed from power in 2001, and it was supposed to be a symbol of the new Afghanistan.

But the Taleban are back. They control the road and many of the villages by night and in places even by day. Their influence is spreading towards Kabul.

Lest the timing of this be unclear, this was August of 2007. There is no doubt IEDs are an enormous risk—that’s why the Canadians are scrambling to get more IED-detecting trucks. It is a safe bet that that Kandahar is not as paved as Ghazni, Khost, or even Kunar. If paving is such a fail-safe counter-IED method, why are the PRTs there not busy paving roads? Why are the Canadians not begging for more CERP funds to pave more?

The Canadians have seen the majority of their casualties along the roads, by IEDs. And their road construction crews have been killed by RPG-wielding insurgents. So it makes sense that they’re not pushing this same meme.

There are still no data about the specific security benefits of road construction. Common sense indicates an area must be secured to some degree before construction can have a reasonable chance of success. Yet, the message coming from the U.S. Army and State Department is that this is not the case, and good roads on their own have significant security benefits. Unfortunately, this is simply stated, then repeated by reporters who don’t investigate the matter on their own. Concrete data—including statistical analyses of roadside IEDs before and after a paving project, examples of security improvements when paving in a secure vs. non-secure area, and the specific benefits of a broader cross-domain COIN efforts vs. road construction (with the understanding that road construction is part of any solid rural COIN campaign)—would go leaps and bounds toward making the case that roads may indeed have a major security benefit.

Right now the data on hand—granted, in public, open sources—indicates that solid, paved roads are actually a security detriment, rather than a benefit. And this is what makes this topic so frustrating—it is the interplay between security and other benefits that should make the case for roads so convincing, that despite the security challenges posed by road construction, they are one of the best things the West can do for the country. But this is not the concept being pushed out to gullible reporters. Alas.

As a final thought: it is interesting to note that the long-term journalist embeds in Afghanistan—almost all of whom are British, and embedded in both the South and East—are not the ones pushing this roads = security meme, perhaps because both they and their handlers know better. It is only the short term adventure journalists, jumping in for a week tour of the whole country, who are doing so. Easy pickings, perhaps?

This Topic Continues:
Roads, Roads, Roads
Of PR Campaigns and the Utility of Area Knowledge
War Is Peace, and Other Orwells at the Journal
A Practical Look at the Value of Roads
Learning from PRTs
The Strange Benefits of Paving Afghanistan
Ann Marlowe Thinks Afghanistan Is Doing Awesome


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. 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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