Our other perennial theme

by Joshua Foust on 9/1/2010 · 5 comments

My column this week at PBS focuses on roads:

Why does the international ommunity focus so intently on road construction? It’s difficult to say. There is a belief, justified in many ways, that well-paved roads are a necessary step toward fostering economic development. Roads do little for commerce, however, if they’re controlled by criminals and insurgents, and paving them seems to make road-based crime worse. There is also a belief, almost religious in its adherence to faith over fact, that paving roads somehow reduces the emplacement of IEDs — even though the many thousands of miles of paved roads have accompanied a dramatic increase in the use of IEDs by insurgents.

Like far too many aid projects in Afghanistan, the relentless focus on road construction probably has as much to do with western preferences as it does with specific benefits to Afghan communities.

Rip it apart, folks.

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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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Matt Irvine September 1, 2010 at 8:20 am

Perhaps we get it from ourselves? One of the founding economic and security principles of the U.S., at least of Alexander Hamilton, was state sponsored economic infrastructure (eg ports, harbors, and roads). Eisenhower took this to the next level with the highways. There is a clear thread in American strategic thought that economics and security are linked, and that one of those bonds is transportation/shipping on water and on land.

Paved roads also have some nice short term benefits:
-Hopefully they use local labor to build and maintain.
-Tangible signs of the state providing a good.
-Whole lot easier to drive on in an MRAP or Humvee.

Like all public goods, they can be utilized for good and bad.

Also, is the paving of the road the cause of the increase in the use of IEDs by insurgents? Or is it the increased traffic on the paved road that attracts the insurgent IEDs? If the latter, then you get into a cost-benefit scenario utility vs. exposure.

Joshua Foust September 1, 2010 at 8:24 am

On the security implications of roads: my point since the start of this push to pave above all else is exactly what you say: public goods can be good or evil. They are morally neutral. And if they are used for evil, we should question whether they are a good idea.

The IED question is trickier. I don’t really doubt the people who say asphalt makes it much harder to plant IEDs. The thing is, simply adding asphalt doesn’t necessarily reduce the rate of IED emplacement—and if it does, no one has attempted to prove it using evidence or data. I don’t think paving caused any increase in IED emplacement, and in fact it’s possible all the paving reduced it to some degree. My point is, despite the paving, IED incidents have sky rocketed, which tells me that paving the roads isn’t how you reduce IEDs, and paving the roads as an IED reduction strategy—which military types have been advocating for years now—doesn’t make any sense.

BruceR September 2, 2010 at 12:10 am

Not sure that one necessarily follows from the other in your last sentence.

Tactically, asphalting roads does have a canalizing effect, in that it forces placement into the plentiful (but marked and observable) culverts on highways, or shifting to less successful tactics (like direct fire ambush, or vehicle-borne IEDs). This drives the cost to the enemy of an IED fatality up, in lives and materiel, and drives the cost of our preventing that fatality down. But there’s no reason it should correlate with an unaggregated number of “incidents”.

Better metrics for assessing asphalting impacts would be whether the number of finds vs the number of detonations changed, or whether the number of IED emplacers killed in that area increased. Another analytical method could be to actually look at whether the road itself was better serving its purpose: steal a page from analysis of convoy vs sub tactics and ask what percentage of total road traffic was interdicted or disrupted by IED activity.

I would be surprised if those kinds of methods wouldn’t find a correlation that favoured asphalting. Now, if we wanted to analyse cost-benefit (security and economic) of asphalting vs other possible counter-IED tactics: more troops doing route sweeps, more UAVs, more aggressively banning fertilizer, etc. that would be an interesting analysis, too, and your suspicion that it is not the best expenditure could well be borne out. But I don’t accept the point that asphalting is an ineffective C-IED strategy yet, at least on the evidence so far.

Mike Jacobs September 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Great article Josh. I think you nailed it by marking roads development as: 1) A tactical gain (improved MRAP transit) and 2) A strategic gain (improved PR, both in Afghanistan and ISAF countries).

The part of your article that really caught my attention was the following sentence: “the bizarre obsession on road construction is a symptom of the aid project in Afghansitan-writ large, preferring large showcase projects to smaller ones with greater immediate benefit to communities, focusing on hard metrics instead of specific outcomes, and doing what is familiar instead of what is effective.”

I am in the midst of an academic research project focusing on US-Military led development efforts such as CERP and DoD’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO). Such orgainizations have done both big picture development work, like road networks, and smaller scale projects such as digging wells and building schools.

I am curious if you came across information on the CERP and TFSBO while researching this article or, during your work in general, comparisons between the development efforts led by ISAF and those led by civilian organizations.

Any thoughts or leads would be much appreciated!

Caleb Kavon September 3, 2010 at 12:17 am

Roads are an interesting issue. When I talk to the Anti Soviet Mujaheddin guys they were all for roads, simply because they are easier to walk on, and they use them too. Depending on the area, and ISAF/ANP situation, the Insurgents use the roads in daylight too. It works both ways, they like them too.
Roads in of themselves do not dictate IED usage. The Insurgents place IEDs where they have observed likely ISAF/ANP activity which will facillitate good targeting of convoys and other targets. IED issues are simply a function of our self imposed fascination with FOBs..and FBs..which basically allow the Insurgent the ideal target for IEDs.
If they know you always start from Point A be it in Sangin, Arghendeb, or wherever, a small bomb team has only to use a limited study of our activity and keep placing in those likely areas of approach. One boom rattles hearts and minds for a week, 52 booms and well …Marjah on Ice. So when we need to be clear…when we talk about hard fighting, do we mean hard fighting or the difficult struggle to not step on mines due to our deep love for an oil slick. It is not always clear. Asphalt has many meanings in Afghanistan….take the Kandahar road for example..

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