Roads Are Our Salvation!

by Joshua Foust on 9/29/2009 · 9 comments

From the Associated Press, a years-old story:

Taliban militants are sowing fear along Afghanistan’s highways with stepped-up checkpoints, hijackings and bombs — including one Tuesday that killed at least 30 bus passengers in the south. Afghan authorities say the attacks, often carried out by only a handful of militants, are part of a psychological campaign to convince civilians that Taliban control is spreading.

“It is quite possible for a group of three to five insurgents to come out on the highway and attack a convoy,” said the Interior Ministry spokesman, Zemarai Bashary. “Maybe thousands of people will travel that day and they are watching that convoy burning.”

Militants are planting more roadside bombs than ever, killing far more Afghan civilians than Afghan or coalition soldiers. The bombings — and ambushes with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades — are increasingly taking place on main roads against trucks and buses.

Do I even need to mention that a certain counterinsurgency grand theorist wrote an entire chapter about how roads solve security? That’s because roads, like all infrastructure, is dual-use—whatever makes movement easier for us also makes it easier for them. Really basic critical thinking about this makes it feel kind of obvious, but that didn’t seem to affect the breathless tone of the coverage of roads last year.

Just for funsies, here’s a neat quote by the famed pseudo-ethnographer Schuyler Jones (he actually moved his wife and kids to live with him in Nuristan in the 60s!) about how the riparian communities up the Waygal Valley behaved toward government-funded roads

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


IntelTrooper September 29, 2009 at 8:02 pm

And pretty much every road in Afghanistan cross at least one ditch…

dennis September 29, 2009 at 8:32 pm

even a new road,one will fine a pothole at times.

DE Teodoru September 30, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Very smart guy this Mr. Foust….but….

“Sowing fear”– well what the hell are we doing that’s so different? Perhaps this is what Exum meant when he complained that we’re not “KINETIC” enough with the population. The fact is that terrain is not what we want. We want an Afghan Gov that will not give permission to alQaeda to use the country as a base. Perhaps that’s the question Mullah Omar faced and then he asked himself: “What the hell can I do if I say no? I can’t enforce my refusal, so why not cash in on the benefits this Muslim brother offers.” Mr. Foust points out Exum’s criticism that we don’t know what HOLD means. Pardon me, we know well as we paid heavily in blood in Vietnam to learn with CAP and MAT teams but the issue is how can a few teeth with such a big tail hold so much as to be effective? That’s our problem, we have BIIIIIIGGGG logistic tails because we’re trigger happy. The Russians are getting a big laugh as we are going hypoxic for lack of logistic routes. If we can’t feed and supply our “holding troops” how do we keep the promises with which we bought off village elders? That’s what turns Afghans to the Taliban: OUR BROKEN PROMISES VS. TALIBAN NIGHT LETTERS—at least they are family. Wow, I saw this before in Vietnam. Exactly the same! In a village near Pleiku a first class Hungarian born Green Beret was pleading: how can we get these villagers on night patrol when we can’t even get army issue jackets to them so they don’t tremble to immobility from cold rather than fear. Well, I sent jackets… but someone made sure they returned to the Saigon street market where I bought them. As in Vietnam, our people are crooked and our Afghans are crooked (they can’t steal without American collaboration). Everyone is figuring, I’m gonna get killed probably or at best I’m gonna have to make a run for it. If I do, I better get some capital to open a shop in Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Ahha! Here is the issue. “Our” Afghans won’t do what we ask them to because they know we’re leaving– HELL THEY SAW THAT FOR **8** YEARS DURING WHICH WE SAID WE ARE THERE AND WE WERE NOT! So everyone is trying to survive long enough to gather a crooked nest egg before it’s over and they have to run abroad.

So how did we almost win the “better war” in Vietnam? Well, the VC strategy was to be guerrilla fish swimming in a sea of peasants. We deemed “injun country” a lot of farm land then we just about “nuked” it, Israeli style. This made the peasants refugees in the towns and cities. South Vietnam went from 85% rural in 1963 to 75% urban in 1967; that’s why Le Duan and Le Duc Tho threw everything into an attack on the cities on Tet 1968– IT FAILED! And so it was from the cities that Saigon Gov sent an army and RD Cadres that ran the Phoenix Program. As SOUTH VIETNAMESE, not Exum’s MACV or CIA daddy– went after the VC Infrastructure, the troops from the North were lost in small units and had no one to feed and guide them. So they started to rocket with Soviet-made Katushka rockets the village market places at 10 AM when most crowded with peasants. That sure went bad as it made peasants mad and I was with RF/PF units coordinated by wonderful MAT and CAP teams– to which Exum could never hold a candle– that held of Northern regulars with far bigger firepower until ARVN and MACV sent in the Dragonflies. Lesson (military are a bunch of star whores so they never learn from previous generation) here is that if you URBANIZE the population into towns that make REAL things and pay REAL salaries with which to buy them, the night letters go undelivered and the young men are out on the town instead of strapping on the vests of suicide shahids. Killer McChrystal doesn’t mean “hold”; he means “OCCUPATION.” As one who lived under occupation I can tell you it makes you hate. But Petraeus&Co are so drunk on their “surge” BS that they don’t realize that their success came from the fact that Iraq is already cities. Urbanize the Afghan NW and run it until you train people well, focus on training street cops who can read and pay them well and you might pull this off in a decade. If we started after 9/11, we’d be leaving by next year. I don’t recall this nation ever having such an intellectually dull Pentagon so focused on idiotic commercials as “fact” as if they were PHARMA commercials on TV. I thought Bush was dumb but in comparison I see why he felt like he’s the Commander-and-Chief. But Gates is a very smart guy who remembers Vietnam and he should be PERSONALLY consulted on how to urbanize and HOLD the cities…. not little villages in the middle of nowhere by just “sowing fear.” It doesn’t work because you only sow HATE! Unfortunately the Taliban are deemed kith and kin so they have a BIIIIGGGG advantage.

Zarathustra September 30, 2009 at 11:07 pm

Roads are of dual use but they are not equally used by both troops and insurgents. This is important. Roads allow for a subsequent escalation of NATO forces. Lets not mix cause and effect. More roads brings more troops (extend your time horizon and be able to see troops in a more plastic definition).

The capital of our transport is moved on roads MUCH MORE than the insurgents. You write that the taliban does not existentially attack roads. Fair. You say they ‘want’ roads because they ‘feel’ it may bring prosperity, notwithstanding actually causality. Fair also.

This does not detract from the project of war’s movements. roads are built by contractors, patrolled by troops and whose danger (road, people etc) provides sunk/fixed/kinked capital that leads to capital expansions (road pavements- the State’s project is to resmooth its interior gridded space) and variable human capital- (deaths, discussions of troop casualties, reassessment of troop geometries, etc).

Yes roads are used by both but they are not used in the same way. The taliban does not drive tanks on these roads in broad daylight. this is not to say that they are an advantage to us and wretched for them. not at all. but it seems that you have some roads are wanted so as long as we create the proper ‘security’ (for who? contractors?) then they will be positive? It seems like a gross underestimation of the taliban’s capability of violence to think that this terrain can be ‘secured’ for construction?

furthermore it seems unfairly insufficiently critical of the american/nato project here to say that the motivation for these roads are altruistic for afghan prosperity. it seems that the whole point of this war machine is to smooth the interior space (lubricate speed.

electricity is of dual function as well. is it so villages will get electricity and think wow this is great where is my electricity from the taliban? and thus fall into the arms of the nato troops? No- this is a project of remapping, redrawing lines (there is no metaphor of lines in electrical grids) of resonance centers.

building more roads makes a new State (in the gridded/striated sense), new centers of fixity and most importantly from everyone’s concern, new sites of resistance.

anan October 1, 2009 at 1:47 am

DE Teodoru, most Afghans do not like the Taliban and believe that they are in bed with foreign Takfiri extremists. {Attitudes in parts of Helmand, Kandahar etc. are more favorable to the Taliban.}

Should: “Unfortunately the Taliban are deemed kith and kin so they have a BIIIIGGGG advantage” read “Unfortunately the GIRoA/ANSF are deemed kith and kin so they have a BIIIIGGGG advantage.” The ANA is by far the most popular institution among Afghans, including Pashtu Afghans, in every Afghan poll I have seen.

ISAF/international community have three broad objectives:
1) joint operations with the ANSF to improve security in the short term.
2) increasing Afghan capacity (ANSF, civilian Afghan institutions) over the medium term.
3) increasing economic growth over the long term so that Afghans can increasingly pay for increased Afghan capacity over time (gradually reduce the GIRoA budget deficit.)

Roads help with part (3.) Currently GIRoA revenue is approx $600 million while steady state expenditures = more than $6,000 million. Roads boost GIRoA revenue over the long run; which is the largest reason to build them. The second largest reason to build them is that they increase ANSF and Afghan civilian institution capacity over time (since they can less expensively, more safely and more quickly travel around Afghanistan.)

The effect on part (1) is more ambiguous as Joshua has written many times. Arguably roads might worsen security in many areas in the short run. The hope is that the benefit in part (3) and part (2) offset the cost in part (1.)

Zarathustra, in every Afghan poll I have seen, security is near the top of Pasthun Afghan demands. Why wouldn’t most Pashtu Afghans want more roads and more ANP and ANA traveling on them?

DE Teodoru October 1, 2009 at 12:39 pm

“IN BED WITH FOREIGN TAKFIRI?” Anan, are you sure? As of when?
I recall in Vietnam that both ARVN and PLAF were kith and kin; but when the kith and kin from ARVN sent a draft notice, it meant nothing next to the VICI village committee command to set booby traps. That gave the villagers a very short choice that until Tet turned every village into a “Fortified Revolutionary Village.” These villages in effect painted themselves in iridescent colors at risk for the terrible ordnance that we rained on them from air and distant cannons. In Afghanistan we have been similarly from on high dropping JDAMs that indiscriminately blow things up, even when we spot one guy with a gun (Kilcullen unintendedly in his book gives a great example). The responder flying death from the sky gets the blame and is remembered, never forgotten, as the SOVIET-LIKE killer. After all ANA has no planes, few helicopter. I think that– unless you know something specific which you are not sharing– it is rather what you’ve been told or what you wish were the case that characterizes your retort to me. Perhaps this discussion alone bespeaks the crisis. Gilles Dorronsoro, for example does not paint the picture of the roads that you do. I am also recalling Kikullen’s ACCIDENTAL GUERRILLA where the marvel of roads in Kunar was so hyped (Kilcullen always seems as it ODed on Meth)…..Kunar’s roads didn’t bring the turnover they were expected to, did they? I’m also recalling, from their perspective, the Soviet “control” before the CIA got fully engaged. We can’t judge wars by the outcomes of previous wars but a lot of Afghans I know are haunted by the similarities. People are paying a heavy price in disruption and blood for our “alternative.” The question is WHAT IS THAT ALTERNATIVE in the time frame that villagers lived with war? Is it worth the cost to a marginal boonies person who will have to pay the price of collaboration? Sure, you can promise some marginal survivor a better life, but what is he actually getting and how often is the insurgency causing us to postpone or break our promises at great cost to him? Did the roads improve enough on that front so that the helpless villager can feel it worth his while to stake his lot with us? Kabul “GOV”—whatever that is—is like a chain and any weak link weakens the whole chain—it’s all made of cheap metal! Let us not forget that WE—not the Taliban to which they had adapted– have been stressing the adaptation Afghans made to our war for 8 years now. What have we done to greatly improve their lives to where the stress was worth it and they now have the means and the motivation to go on? It’s not enough to say that they “hate” the Taliban. I remember during the Soviet War, they “hated” the insurgency no matter whom you asked. Part of what assured that is that the only way one got to them to ask that question was with Soviet tanks accompanying your sanitary medical crew. Sure they got antibiotics for the smallest of disorders that plagued them for years, you felt like God, but was it worth what it cost after we left? It was the same in Vietnam. Curing dysentery was not worth worrying about the VC village committee’s response that comes you know not when. My point was that, road or no road, we can’t “hold” because we have to protect our BIIIIGGGG “tails.” Without the tails we are no match for the Taliban except as spotters for the air strikes we call in. There is a whole complex of local politics that makes up the “human terrain’s map” long before we came and will be there long after we leave. Are we going to revolutionize it and set in cement? And the uncertainty about us goes all the way up to Karazi who is taking to the Russians about a post-US future. So why not turn the whole thing over the Shanghai Accord nations, ALL OF WHOM CAN’T AFFORD TALIBAN GOV IN KABUL If you are an Afghan please ID yourself, anan, and expound on your data base. It may or may not be worth far more than the graphics that McChrystal can’t legally make public back home so he sends them in as propaganda via Cordesman (as during Vietnam from JUSPAO) and Kagan. The human terrain concept was based on seeing things through the eyes of the lowest level on the ground whose biologic niche adapted to Taliban and other insurgents long before we stressed it. It’s not credible that we have both improved and secured that niche, roads or no roads. And by the way, ALL South Vietnamese HATED the North Vietnamese, but the latter won anyway because we “cut our loses”—read costs after 1973). When you add up the cost of killing one insurgent and the cost of protecting one of our soldiers to the cost of keeping some kind of phony promise to the Afghans (promises that like in Vietnam we will totally break once our troops leave, just look at how we cut off aid to the GVN) you know that we won’t keep it up once we pull out…..When BinLaden was the target Bush said he didn’t give a damn about him. Afghanistan was bait-and-switch; supplies and men authorized by Congress were cannibalized and used in Iraq in order to present Congress with a fait accompli: YOU CAN’T REFUSE TO FUND WAR IN IRAQ WITH OUR MEN ALREADY IN THE FIELD! I know Afghans in the Gov at district level who remember that and they are just stealing a little here and a little there so they can run to Quetta and open a shop just before the Americans leave. EVERYONE REMEMBERS 2001-2006. New roads won’t ever make them forget. There is a strategic defeatism on our side that makes “everyone hates the Taliban” irrelevant. But if we become REVOLUTIONARIES by creating manufacturing cities in the NW that pay real wages with which to buy real things, we can in a decade economically kill the Taliban as we did the VCI. Do you agree, anan?

DE Teodoru October 1, 2009 at 3:23 pm

anan said:
Roads help with part (3.) Currently GIRoA revenue is approx $600 million while steady state expenditures = more than $6,000 million. Roads boost GIRoA revenue over the long run; which is the largest reason to build them. The second largest reason to build them is that they increase ANSF and Afghan civilian institution capacity over time (since they can less expensively, more safely and more quickly travel around Afghanistan.)

The real issue is what will increase total income 50x at least so state can function by standards of high-fat we are imposing? What will be attrition to corruption even if the mechanism is set. Roads for Afghanistan are like atherosclerosis free arteries in a man exsanguinating. Wouldn’t manufacturing urbanization into concentrated areas where the Pashtun go rather than that go to the Pashtun be the only real answer?

anan October 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm

DE Teodoru, sorry for the very late reply. I also saw your two more recent comments on “Withdrawal is not (Necessarily) Surrender.”

Give me some time to get back to you on a more recent threads. Some have e-mailed me comments similar to yours; and I haven’t gotten back to them either.

“The real issue is what will increase total income 50x at least so state can function by standards of high-fat we are imposing?” Its a serious question. I have written some spreadsheets. Basically the Afghan GDP per capita will have to increase at a 7% annual rate over the next 20 years to balance the budget. This is very optimistic.

“What will be attrition to corruption even if the mechanism is set.” This is why the civilian surge and improved governance are so important.

“Roads for Afghanistan are like atherosclerosis free arteries in a man exsanguinating. Wouldn’t manufacturing urbanization into concentrated areas where the Pashtun go rather than that go to the Pashtun be the only real answer?” Not sure I follow. More roads would likely facilitate economic growth over the long run; but the ANSF would need to expand to protect those roads. You could write an economic model to account for this.

I disagree with you on Vietnam, but then my view is affected by the South Vietnamese view.

“But if we become REVOLUTIONARIES by creating manufacturing cities in the NW that pay real wages with which to buy real things, we can in a decade economically kill the Taliban as we did the VCI. Do you agree, anan?” I think so, it is the how that is hard.

Please respond to this on the most recent thread, since I might not get back to this one.

DE Teodoru October 5, 2009 at 10:53 am

Anan, forgive me please but I am a bit skeptical about a “South Vietnamese view.” My point about urbanization is a well documented South AND North Vietamense view. We had the documents about the Tet Offensive and urbanization. I also had a chance over years to see their version of Phoenix work and how the MAT and CAP teams as subsidiaries rather than “get out of the way of MY war in YOUR country because I’ve got to get stars on my collar” worked. This business about mass murder by Phoenix is not the case as a rule.

I was hoping to hear what you all think of the idea I’ve been throwing at Giustozzi and others of errecting maufacturing towns in the NW where people are given jobs in a controlled environment where they are educated, cared for and well payed with access to goods to soak their income, as Saigon had become. That’s was expensive but that’s what urbanized South Vietnam. Later, from the cities, as the infrastructure spread back down the Delta, villages through a land reform developed RATIONAL farming. I still have the analysis documents and was about to retire from health care to write a book on Vietnam when I was at the Borders bookstore in the World Trade Center picking up an order and all hell broke loose. Since then I felt duty bound to get involved in all this as Afghnaistan was made a part in my life when a student in East Europe (I won’t say more but I am seeing repeat of old foolishness). I have come to hate Petraeus and McChrystal because I think them so dumb that they think they can fool all of the people all of the time using hot button words and little else. I have been pushing the view on the “surge” that Ricks has finally come to and the military has only been covering its butt, in my view. I don’t want to see a repeat in Afghanistan.. But then I realized that my rage is at their seeming incompetence when I really don’t know them or what they’re up against. Military friends say they are both good men.

I don’t like to just bitch while doing nothing, thus making commanders the butt of my frustration with the uselss losses as America sinks into debt. So I hope to get a number or retirees with various useful skills and we become a sort of “Granda Vlunteer Corps” for the civil effort in Afghanistan. There’s an advantage even there that old men coming in unarmed to help have in the eyes of locals. I learned this from old “Blowtorsh” in Vietnam. Many of us are living on borrowed time anyway, eating our children’s future as pension, so why not earn them by volunteering to help people who are so desperate ANYTHING would be help. That way I would stop hating and denegrading our generals who may be fine men; but I hold them to the standards of some of the Vietnam generals I knew well and the West Point Class of 76 doesn’t seem to measure up. Still, being there is a lot more bearable than being here heplessly raging over all the moms and dads (today’s soldiers are on average 5 yrs. older than Vietnam) neelessly killed– leaving behind widows and orphans America will forget as it did with Vietnam vets– because of needless Afghan/Iraq command errors.

This site is probably the most sensitive I have seen to the Afghna plight. I think Mr. Foust should be fully supported. Most people don’t know about the historic Afghan ties with the Central Asian neighborhood and with the Shanghai Accord long after we are gone. At any rate, either we ALL do something or pull our patriotic heroes out. Every night since 9/11 I have been feeling shame how they have been sending these patriots in intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb in both theaters with all lesons of the past set aside. As an American by choice not chance I am totally disgusted with aging America’s “ain’t my kid going to Iraq/Afghnaistan” disconnect syndrome. That drives me more crazy that anything in Afghnaistan and Iraq. So let me thank you for your kind willingness to help me understand what you think is going on. The more of us engage in MEANINGFUL DIALOGUE and teach-in debates, the more the nation comes to know its individual citizen’s responsibility rather than pawn it off on “specialists.” You’re all a fine bunch of Americans who don’t just leave your Afghna experiences behind but keep a dialogue of learning going on this site. Than God, no “disoconnect syndrome” here!

Previous post:

Next post: