A special guest-post from “Sikundar.” For the record, I’m sooooo not “esteemed.”
Recently, this blog’s esteemed Mr. Foust published a piece for PBS assailing the road as a weapon in the COIN arsenal yet again. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was not so secretly pushing an environmental agenda. Roads are just roads, Mr. Foust; inanimate streams of asphalt and packed dirt. They can also be useful in the conflict in Afghanistan if constructed and used correctly; sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not. But your arguments against them are poorly formed. Any development work anywhere, if poorly executed or not followed up on, or promised and not delivered, is going to be a detriment to the war effort. The fault lies with the actors, not the tools.
Roads, properly utilized, can increase productivity as travel times decrease, increase market availability as transit times (and costs) decrease thereby stimulating local economies, and can stymie some IED attempts (insurgents will adapt, I realize, but that takes time). Used properly, they can provide cash-for-work schemes to locals, or other Afghans if the locals aren’t interested. They provide tangible evidence that the government is attempting to develop an area (you can burn down a school, but you can’t burn down a road), and once a local population can anticipate using the road, they will resent insurgent attempts to block it. In areas of instability, where there are not enough ISAF or GIRoA security forces to secure an area, road crews bring their own security, boosting the amount of friendly forces.
That the enemy uses roads should come as no surprise. But whether they take three hours by paved road to reach an isolated checkpoint they intend to overrun or eight hours by dirt track is largely irrelevant. That security incidents are clustered around roads is no surprise then, either. ISAF uses roads. GIRoA uses roads. Insurgents like to attack them both. So they attack the roads. To know that any enemy in a given area is more likely to attack a small ribbon of road than anywhere else is probably not something many commanders mind. It keeps the fights out of cities and towns, allows a wider array of munitions to be used (which is to the benefit of ISAF and not the insurgents). And the busier a road becomes, as less developed routes fall into disuse and locals take to paved route, the less likely insurgents are to be able to set complex ambushes undetected.
I have no figures to back up my claims any more than Mr. Foust does. I’ve seen road works corked up; Indians brought into conservative Pashtun areas with high unemployment to do jobs the Afghans could have done, roads promised but not delivered, or delivered years after they were promised. Often the contracting process fails to function as intentioned, and non-locals skim off millions before the first spade is turned. But that’s not the fault of the roads, and the problems are often just as apparent in other types of infrastructure works.
A larger question, and perhaps the one that Mr. Foust should have asked, is whether big development works are a worthwhile method to assist Afghanistan. The U.S. (or any other foreign nation in Afghanistan) doesn’t have the personnel necessary to engage in micro-development projects, however, so maybe that work is better left to GIRoA.
Roads, for better or worse, are some of the best large scale development works that ISAF can undertake. Even in unfriendly areas, the sight of Afghans working and getting paid to develop the country is an inspiring sight for many. It does not matter that ISAF worries that insurgents will use it, or that insurgents claim ISAF is building the road for ISAF, everyone will use it. And most will appreciate the improvement.
|Sekundar works in national security, and has worked, studied, and traveled in many areas of Central and South Asia.|