On “On the Roads Again,” Again

by Ahad_Abdurahmon on 9/5/2010 · 3 comments

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.

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Tim Haggerty September 5, 2010 at 11:55 am

“The U.S. (or any other foreign nation in Afghanistan) doesn’t have the personnel necessary to engage in micro-development projects.”

It really not the thing, but the lack of personnel engaged that have made things unworkable. There should be better than 500,000 US personnel working in Afghanistan to rebuild the country. 400,000 should be civilian development workers dressed and working with the Afghans.

We have asked a fifth of that number to do everything, and most of that number remains on the large bases. It a wonder they have done as well as they have.

I remember a photo a few years ago where it was written on a white board “The Marines are at war, America is at the mall.”. That is the failure here, not the roads.

anan September 6, 2010 at 1:26 am

Sikundar is right that most Afghans want roads. In Helmand the top two demands by locals are schools followed closely by roads.

This by itself is more than sufficient reason to build roads.

Corsair8X September 8, 2010 at 10:49 am

Much of this was covered in “The Accidental Guerilla” and at first I thought Mr Faust was taking issue with the book, only to be confused when the book was not mentioned.

Done right, roads can be useful for all the reasons listed here (and in that book).

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