Our Inexplicable Insistence on Road Construction

by Joshua Foust on 2/11/2011 · 20 comments

In Afghanistan, an idea has become solidified in the minds of our military’s planners: building a road is good counterinsurgency. The justification for this is, in many ways, nonsensical, as the construction of a road requires many things behind it, like good security and a plan to maintain and protect it after construction, that are simply not there in Afghanistan. Regardless, there persists this belief that roads, somehow, create good COIN.

Enter the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Matthew Green reports:

After spending billions of dollars supporting the country’s army offensives, the Obama administration has adopted a disarmingly simple plan to defuse the violence: building a road.

Washington hopes that twin 100km highways running through South Waziristan to the edge of North Waziristan, a haven for al-Qaeda loyalists, will unlock economic development and sap support for militancy.

The choice of contractor says much about the Taliban threat. Soldiers of the Frontier Works Organisation, part of an opaque commercial empire run by Pakistan’s army, are the only engineers who dare set foot there.

This plan, of course makes no sense (and it’s worth reading the article in full so I don’t run afoul of the FT’s draconian use policies through more excerpting). It rests on the assumption that what people need or want in South Waziristan is a better highway and a few months of construction work, rather than a functioning government and permanent economic opportunities… and maybe the chance to be left alone.

That last bit about a military contractor doing all the road building is especially worrying. In the tribal areas, the roads are considered government property anyway, according to Reuters. The U.S. probably thinks it is avoiding the foreign contractor problem by hiring a local Pakistani firm. However, they decided instead to hire a company so close to the military that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins—like a Pakistani Booz Allen. This introduces a new problem: when one of the biggest grievances driving militancy is a sense that a distant and abusive government is trying to impose foreign control on the area, hiring a military contractor to build more roads is not an appropriate response. It’s not even addressing the problem, just making brand new ones. It is USAID at its best: full of great ideas but without a clue as to how best to implement them.

When you compare what USAID funds—massive, capital-intensive projects with little chance of sustainment past completion date—with smaller, locally-focused efforts that try to build strong communities instead of a strong state, the head-shaking cluelessness of this highway project becomes rather stark. Apart from the Roman Empire, when has building a road ever undermined an insurgency, or halted the recruitment of children into an resistance movement? Yet that assumption is what lies underneath the roads = victory caucus… that and a frankly insulting belief that money can solve a war.

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– 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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Colin Cookman February 11, 2011 at 3:44 pm

I made this comment on twitter elsewhere but it’s my understanding that a lot of the road construction going on in FATA (and based on a brief aside in a presentation I heard a few weeks ago, I believe there’s more going on than this) runs north to south, which is great for army / frontier corps mobility along the border but doesn’t do especially much economically to link the agencies to markets either in Afghanistan or Khyber-Paktunkhwa and beyond. The map in the FT article isn’t especially detailed — is there anything on the other side of the border for that road to lead to?

Joshua Foust February 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm

Yeah, the road in south Waziristan connects either to the road leading to Khost city in Khost province or to Sharana in Paktika, depending on exactly where along the border it really is.

But I agree with you, this is not an appropriate solution for what the U.S. says it wants to accomplish.

RScott February 11, 2011 at 4:17 pm

In 1981 when we were designing the first Tribal Areas Development Project, which was supposed to be focused on rural development, the government people we worked with were pressing for more roads although there were already two lane asphalt roads into at least the administrative centers of each agency, eg. Wana, SW, and between Wana and Miranshah, NW. Their interest was for security, being able to move government people, eg. Frontier Corps, quickly into the areas. They wanted to build a paved road into an area called something like Tira, as I remember, in Khyber Agency but the tribals refused to have it. Of course at the time the Soviets had recently moved into Afghanistan and the tribal areas roads from east to west were used by the mujahadin. Along the S. Waziristan border with Afg. the areas we saw and crossed were open flat plain with farmers on both sides being of the same tribes and families frequently with land on both sides. There was one fuel dump near the border for the Mujahadin at Angur Ada which the Soviets bombed, as I think we have also. From Miran Shah into Afgh, there is a main smugglers road that used to bring ag produce like peanuts and cotton, out of Helmand to Pakistan markets by-passing Pak. customs. And finally, as noted, when you have billions to spend in a short time, you can move more money building paved roads using heavy equipment than you can improving irrigation systems or building schools. And this is likely one of the key factors in the focus on building paved roads.

Johny Matrix February 12, 2011 at 12:11 am

I’ve followed Registan for some time now with great patience and acceptance of other viewpoints, many of which make a great deal of sense. However after reading your terse response to our government’s decision concerning development in Pakistan, I feel disturbed. I’ve spent some time in N2KL and seen the effects of paved roadways (direct and indirect). Security through presence and economy through trade are just a few of the many benefits that come with roads. I can appreciate your overall judgement on AfPak issues, but just because the US makes a decision does not mean that it is always wrong.

RScott February 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

The decisions are not always wrong but as a retired USAID Research-Evaluation Officer and Project Manager, you must never stop watching,monitoring,evaluating what is being planned and done. There are many flaws in our system, like over-budgeting for projects for political reasons, that require constant evaluation and adjustment. Normally this is an internal process, usually in a Program Office, but the individuals involved are also under pressure vis-a-vis present policy and you must not be labeled “not a team player” if you want to stay in the system. It is not good to be too critical from the inside.
And yes, paved roads do make a difference in development. For example, the gravel road originally built by Morrison-Knutsen in the 1950s connecting Lashkar Gah, Helmand provincial capital, with the main highway was paved by the Indians in the mid-2000s. The well compacted gravel road was not receiving the needed periodic grading as it did in the 70s so it became rough and very damaging to both vehicles and any produce being shipped like melons and soft vegetables.
But on paving roads in FATA, keep in mind that as early as the 80s, most of the key roads into and through FATA were already paved. You could drive from Peshawar to any of the Agency administrative centers on paved roads, including Wana, the most distant. Many of these roads were a lane and a half wide, following British custom, but paved. To judge the decision, you need to see the proposals and someone needed to see the road conditions. But generally the Pakistanis maintain their roads.

Johny Matrix February 13, 2011 at 10:26 pm

There’s a difference between monitoring and evaluating (which are both indispensable) decision-making and sharp-shooting every decision made by the US. Stating that the road should not be constructed due to contractor conflict goes past evaluating. I don’t think any decision-maker worth his salt in AFG would refect an offer to build in a road in their area simply because they disagreed with who was building it.

Jakob February 12, 2011 at 11:55 am

FWO knows what it’s doing, they are up to the task and doing their job well and efficiently, something the locals appreciate a lot (current big projects in AJK and the north). Problematic is of course that they just get the job, because the army says so (and not because they are the only ones who dare to), it’s a monopoly. Also they don’t really recruit locally which causes dissent.

As RScott has noted, I believe that’s just an easy way to spend big money. The metal roads in the area are not the worst, trucks charge big because of security, not bad tarmac and that’s what affects locals. More/quicker deployment of Pak troops will hardly bring more security.

Pol-Mil FSO February 12, 2011 at 2:19 pm

My experience in Kandahar Province in 2007-2008 was that road construction was generally a plus, bringing both increased security and enabling rural inhabitants to get quicker access to markets, hospitals, and schools. The only occasional drawback was in the site where the road was placed. I saw two examples of this error, the first being the construction of a tactical road to link Panjwayi and Zhari Districts that was a straight line north-south path that alienated some landowners who lost property. The second was the USAID plan that, based on advice from Afghan Government officials in Kabul, called for improving access to the Khakrez District Center by construction of an indirect road that traveled through northern Shah Wali Kot District rather than by the direct northwesterly route from the Arghandab District. This planned route went into an area under strong Taliban control and was therefore not viable. Provided that locals are consulted and land ownership questions are understood, I think that road construction is a definite benefit for the local population and the deployed security forces. As for the efficacy of road construction in the Pakistani tribal areas, I have to defer to those who know something about that region.

Steve C February 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Road building was a good idea in 2002 – mostly as a relatively controllable means of injecting ground level cash into an economy that was on its back.

With today’s systemic corruption – and I don’t only point the finger at Afghans – I believe, as Josh has pointed out – it will probably do more harm than good.

An opportunity long since missed and a pity for all that.

M Shannon February 12, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The main purpose in building roads is to allow the movement of the new breed of high centered and not very cross country mobile armoured vehicles, MRAPS etc and the fleets of B6 armoured SUVs used by ISAF. Exactly the same reasons the Romans and Raj built roads. Any improvement in the local economy is an after thought. This brings up the question of the quality of western infantry but I’ll leave it for now.

Of course the roads tactically cut both ways. Movement to and in the mountains for the guerrillas is also improved but not nearly as much as ISAF.

Johny Matrix February 15, 2011 at 8:58 pm

“The main purpose in building roads is to allow the movement of the new breed of high centered and not very cross country mobile armoured vehicles, MRAPS etc and the fleets of B6 armoured SUVs used by ISAF.”

that’s a stretch…and “guerillas” stay away from paved roads, it’d be an insult to them

M Shannon February 15, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I guess the stretch is why so much effort has gone into building roads to Tora Bora and in Kunar.

Of course the Taliban use roads. They mine them, travel on them and run check points on them.

lone wolf February 13, 2011 at 7:44 pm


Michael February 14, 2011 at 6:57 pm

A couple of observations:

1. Every so often, I hear about an American philanthropist (I think his name’s Mortenson) who builds schools in Afghanistan. He only builds them with the locals’ permission, he uses the same locals for labor and none of them have been targeted by the Taliban. Assuming that’s still the case, it begs the question of why the road and other infrastructure building couldn’t be done in the same manner.

2. When you think of what the Romans and other ancient civilizations did with rocks, dirt and hand tools, the lack of modern equipment and materials ceases to be an excuse for not building those roads in the above manner.

Steve Magribi February 15, 2011 at 12:37 am

The above mentioned “purpose” aside. What no one is focusing on is the total “racket” that all these projects have become.

Each and every contracting group as its “go to guys-” those “reliable, worked with us before, well connected, get the job done, we like working with them” set of contractors to do the job.

Sometimes they are foreign “war profiteers” like CADG led by Mini Me Shaulis, DAI or other local “consortiums” which are run by the same hated group of equally despotic war profiteers. Same projects, same people time and time again.

This is what goes for our road and major project efforts on both sides of the imaginery border. Since it is never done at the behest of the local government but rather to spend money and check the blank development, it is our bread and butter approach.

When after year after year, the armed insurgency is growing stronger perhaps even this seemingly beneficial aid product needs to be relooked at for what it is, non productive, and in terms of countering the insurgency ineffective.

joey February 15, 2011 at 6:27 am

First, is it possible to remove the post at 12, which is frankly abusive, racist, and bizarre, in equal measure.

As to the road building, isn’t it primary military measure, which may have secondary economic effects? How else is the Afghan army supposed to get to those hard to reach areas once the Americans are gone.

Joshua Foust February 15, 2011 at 11:25 am

Sorry, guys. Whoever that person is, I’ve banned three IPs so far, and they keep coming. I mark every single comment as spam, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why my spam filter isn’t adapting to the comment and excluding them from future posts. I’m working on it.

Dishonesty? February 15, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Thank you very much for everything you´ve done for us, Gen.PETRAEUS

But virtually the entire U.S. civilian and military leadership in Afghanistan is expected to leave in the coming months, including Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the embassy’s other four most senior officials, Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S.-led international coalition, and Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who runs day-to-day military operations there.


M Shannon February 15, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Michael: The Taliban are usually willing to ignore humanitarian aid: medical clinics, small irrigation projects etc. Villages keen on getting this type of help will usually approach the local Taliban commander for permission for the project. Medical clinics help the locals and act as second line medical facilties for the insurgents.

Taliban commanders will sometimes issue a letter of permission the aid people can show to other insurgents. Of course the GOA and USG aren’t happy with this as it facilitates the establishment of a parallel government. Extortion of USG funded projects is a major funding sources for the Taliban and the fact that most of their programs need Taliban permission is embarrassing news to most USG officials.

It’s in the interest of the Taliban that local farmers do well. Irrigation projects ensure that villages have surplus food to feed insurgents and cash for work makes donating to the cause easier. Better crops also provide more concealment but this is only a fortuitous unintended consequence for the guerrillas.

The difficulty comes with development programs with a clear military purpose especially roads. These get taxed at 10-20% or attacked. In an area with fractured Taliban command it’s gets confusing and dangerous because while one commander may be happy with a project , another may object and launch attacks.

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