On the Roads Again

by Joshua Foust on 3/13/2009 · 2 comments

FOB SALERNO, AFGHANISTAN — Remember last year, when we had the long series on the coordinated “roads improve security” claim? It started with a critique of David Kilcullen’s dispatches from Kunar, went through an examination of the effectiveness of PRTs, to a plea to think critically about the whole concept. I even wrote an article in the Columbian Journalism Review on how this was coordinated quite probably by the U.S. Military.

Judah Grunstein pointed to this Nightwatch issue that argues roads are unwanted intrusions into village life. That’s not necessarily true, though the point about making sure we’re actually providing tangible benefits to the population is appropriate.

Grunstein then followed up with an excellent post about how the appeal of roads is an American one, which was itself an interesting take I had never thought of:

But America’s cultural narrative also includes an enormous emphasis on the road as freedom or escape (again the westward expansion, and more recently Kerouac and Springsteen among many others). And I wonder if that didn’t creep in as an assumption underlying the idea that a road is a universally agreed upon value. Of course, a road represented the potential for salvation to mid- or late-20th century American poets because they felt hemmed in by middle-class suburbia and wanted to get out. But to a pre-modern social group trying to defend a homogeneous identity against the incursions of the outside world, a road represents an existential threat.

Here, though, Grunstein’s argument falls apart. There is precious little evidence that a) “Afghans” have a homogenous identity; b) the current “intrusion” by the outside world is any more significant or jarring than it was before 1979; or c) they actually dislike roads. In fact, of all the people I’ve spoken to the last two months—Pashtuns, no less—they want more, rather than fewer, roads. They see roads as the key to prosperity—a simplistic view, perhaps, but no less heartfelt.

Rather, the problems with roads don’t necessarily lie in their treasured place in American mythology, but in their dual-use: if Coalition Forces can use a road to move around more quickly, so can the insurgents. In many places where roads are being constructed, the paving is done before the security, and just as importantly, it is rare for the insurgents to attack the road itself as an “existential threat.” Rather, they attack the Indian contractors, or the western troops guarding them. Until that fundamental paradox is addressed, roads will remain a truly mixed blessing.

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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 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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Dan March 13, 2009 at 8:18 am

By homogeneity, it could refer to local identities, rather than an overarching Afghan identity. The logic can still hold that an existential threat could exist from connectivity. This can exist simultaneously with the belief that connectivity is a positive thing. Social identity is complicated, overlapping, and varies in salience over time. What’s good for economic interactions can be bad for the assault of ideas and new norms. In short, both you and Grunstein can be correct here.

David M March 13, 2009 at 10:12 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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