Our Long, Endless, Tedious, Counterproductive Obsession with Roads

by Joshua Foust on 5/1/2011

You just knew this was coming, didn’t you?

The money paid to Mr. Arafat bought neither security nor the highway that American officials have long envisioned as a vital route to tie remote border areas to the Afghan government. Instead, it added to the staggering cost of the road, known as the Gardez-Khost Highway, one of the most expensive and troubled transportation projects in Afghanistan. The 64-mile highway, which has yet to be completed, has cost about $121 million so far, with the final price tag expected to reach $176 million — or about $2.8 million a mile — according to American officials. Security alone has cost $43.5 million so far, U.S.A.I.D. officials said.

The vast expenses and unsavory alliances surrounding the highway have become a parable of the corruption and mismanagement that turns so many well-intended development efforts in Afghanistan into sinkholes for the money of American taxpayers, even nine years into the war. The road is one of the most expensive construction projects per mile undertaken by U.S.A.I.D., which has built or rehabilitated hundreds of miles of Afghan highways and has faced delays and cost overruns on similar projects, according to the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

As regular readers here know, I’ve been hammering on this issue for at least three years. It’s probably not productive to rehash every single argument. It is at least important to keep in mind that there is no correlation between road construction and insurgent violence—or, maybe a weak correlation between more roads and more insurgent violence, since roads make it easier to get around.

Indeed, one way to think about roads is in Kunar. Prior to the big push into the northern reaches of the province in 2005-6, and especially before the major push into Nuristan, while militants existed in the area they were neither very concentrated nor could they move very quickly. They had to scale mountains and wend their way along treacherous passes to cross from Chitral into Afghanistan proper.

Over the last six years, we paved a lot of high-traffic areas, and in the process made it easier for a small number of militants to project power across both provinces. For decades, the idea of paving roads has been controversial in Nuristan, with elders fighting over whether they even wanted a connection to the central government (something the Kilcullen-school of COIN ignores: local agency), and then over who gets to collect road taxes from it. In so many ways, from concept to execution, the road paving project was just… well, wrong.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see the KG-Pass road fail. We have been trying to pave it ever since at least 2007, and it’s never been finished. When Spencer Ackerman visited Khost in 2008, he saw that their years of planning hadn’t yet resulted in an actual road being finished; in the years since, every new unit has promised to have the damned thing built but never quite figured it out.

This Arafat fellow Alyssa Rubin profiles is, indeed, a parable of the war writ large: a counterproductive, untrustworthy figure who feigned authority, received millions of dollars leaving us nothing to show for it, and most likely actively contributed to the insurgency in the area. It is perfectly emblematic of how terribly we’ve planned the war, planned the reconstruction projects we assumed would decrease violence, and followed through on our efforts to gauge effectiveness. It has been a strategy based on wishful thinking and theory no one wants to update to reflect reality, preferring instead the disjointed philosophizing of doctrine gurus speaking in pleasing Commonwealth accents. It is appalling.

But the story of the broken KG-Pass Road project also highlights something else that’s worth bringing up, as a last slap in the face to our planners: Contractors. Check it:

Louis Berger hired an Indian subcontractor, which was a joint venture of two companies, BSC and C&C Construction, to handle the construction, and a South African private security contractor, ISS-Safenet, to provide security. Both sides in turn subcontracted to Afghans like Mr. Arafat, who did not even have a registered company, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry…

The hiring of an Indian subcontractor stoked resentments among Afghans, who believed the business should have been given to them, according to Afghan and American officials.

Most important, both sides of the border are dominated by the Haqqani group, whose leaders are from Khost, and Paktia’s powerful Zadran tribe. The Haqqani group is the Taliban offshoot that has long acted as a proxy in Afghanistan for Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani military and intelligence service. Hiring a subcontractor from India — Pakistan’s mortal enemy — in a region dominated by people with close ties to Pakistan was like waving a red flag at Pakistan’s insurgent proxies.

This is precisely one of the biggest problems facing the relentless subcontracting of construction projects in Afghanistan. Indian contractors have been specifically targeted by militants—not just because of general ISI hatred funneled through its insurgent proxies, but because of India’s deliberate decision to entrench itself in the country (along with rampant rumors of the open secret that RAW—India’s foreign intelligence service—has intelligence collectors working with many construction crews).

Now this wouldn’t ordinarily be a terrible thing: Afghans generally like India, and many (especially in the ANA) actively dislike Pakistan and speak privately of having joined to fight against not the Taliban but Pakistan. And you can see that in the continuing saga of Af-Pak border clashes (something I’ve covered elsewhere).

So, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Afghanistan is, in some places, a proxy war between India and Pakistan. This might help explain why USAID didn’t just hire a Pakistani contractor to build the KG-Pass road: if your working assumption—which the sources for that NYT story all acknowledge—is that Pakistan is funding the local insurgency, it would be a hard sell to directly hire a company you assume might help that insurgency (which raises the uncomfortable assumption that all Pakistani commercial interests have a stake in the insurgency: a rabbit hole I’d rather not explore here). If, on the other hand, you can dole out smaller payments to subcontractors who pay off the insurgents, then you might achieve that same goal without as much attention or discomfiting associations.

To believe such a thing, however, requires also believing that planners at USAID and the US Army Brigades who’ve been responsible for the last four-plus hears of failed construction were thinking that strategically. Frankly, the mere existence of the project indicates they were not. My sense is, they went with Indian sub-contractors because they keep better books, so at least in theory the money will be easier to track (it wasn’t); Indians are friendlier than Pakistanis so they wouldn’t have to worry about corruption fueling the insurgency (id did); and Indians are innocuous outsiders who wouldn’t trigger any emotional responses from the local actors driving violence (they were not).

In other words, ignorant assumption, a refusal to work through local actors (which is a continuing problem with reconstruction work in Afghanistan), and a tacit acceptance of ridiculously corrupt players—shoved into an improper strategy in pursuit of an impossible, unrealistic goal (that building roads will solve any of the problems hindering our success in Afghanistan)—all came together in the horrible, messy failure of a project the NYT wrote about today.

Here’s where I end on a positive note: how likely do you think it is that anything will change, and the practice and concept of building the KG-Pass road will improve? Your answer to that question will probably determine how much you’ll be drinking tonight.

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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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