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.