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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

On the roads again in Afghanistan

The narrow K-G Pass is one of the roads in Afghanistan that the U.S. military has planned to pave with an eye toward greater security. Photo: Fred W. Baker III/DOD

In 2007 and 2008, a strange meme swept through the few reporters covering Afghanistan: roads were the key to winning in Afghanistan. Paving Afghanistan’s roads, so the thinking went, would bring security to the provinces and spur development.

The idea was ludicrous on its face. While the reporters performing their ritualistic one- and two-week embeds extolled the power of asphalt, Taliban militants were using the newly paved roads to lay siege to villages, capture entire districts, brutally attack road construction crews and execute complex ambushes against Coalition forces.

By July 2008, the General Accounting Office (GAO) had released a report (pdf), complaining that U.S. agencies responsible for road building “know little about the impact of road projects, since they have not conducted assessments to determine the degree to which the projects have achieved economic development and humanitarian assistance goals.” Moreover, the GAO noted, even the positive reports of progress suffered from spotty or incomplete data, including reports from the Defense Department, which the GAO said had no “clear guidance” and failed to “assess the results” of its road projects.

But roads were not dangerous everywhere. The paved roads in the north and center of Afghanistan, where security is less of a problem, have been good for business. In places like Mazar-i Sharif, they have contributed to a thriving local economy, and increase economic linkages between Kabul and the rest of the country. That doesn’t mean the roads are perfect, however.

Last week, a friend of mine, who for security reasons must remain nameless, was held at gunpoint on a stretch of road in Panjshir province. This was surprising for two reasons: one, it happened on a very well-traveled route, but more importantly it happened in Panjshir, which is renown more for its security and status as a vacation destination than for illegal checkpoints and road banditry. My friend was equally flummoxed at what was happening, and only managed to escape by pressing a roll of money into the marauder’s hands.

If that were an isolated incident, it would be easy to write off as a one-off occurrence — random muggings are an unfortunate reality of life, and even walking around a safe neighborhood in a big city one can encounter similar banditry without fears of all of society collapsing. But the newly paved roads of Afghanistan have been the center of the country’s growing insecurity.

Using the Wikileaks data, Mike Dewar, a post-doc at Columbia, and Drew Conway, a Ph.D. student at NYU, have shown that over the past several years attacks in Afghanistan have been concentrated along the highways — the largest paved roads in the country. There are probably many reasons for this: paved roads are easier to drive on, the roads connect population centers, and so on. The result, whatever the cause, is that, in a strange way, roads have contributed to insecurity in Afghanistan.

Visualisation of Activity in Afghanistan using the Wikileaks data from Mike Dewar on Vimeo.

The U.S. military seems aware of this to a certain extent. As Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for Wired’s Danger Room blog, noted earlier this month, Major General John Campbell, who commands the 101st Airborne Division, plans to make the roads safe as a part of his campaign to “secure” the eastern part of Afghanistan. His plan is to control the roads and connect the various district centers in this area, adopting an “ink spot” approach favored in some counterinsurgency literature.

It sounds lovely, but that’s been the plan for years. In late 2007, the Army units responsible for that same patch of Afghanistan had announced an ambitious plan to secure and then pave the road connecting two important cities: Khost and Gardez. It is an important route: the KG-Pass, as it’s commonly known, was the site of Operation Magistral, one of the last major Soviet military offensives of the Soviet-Afghan War. In 1988, they sent nearly 20,000 troops to secure this exact same stretch of road, killing nearly 2,000 insurgents over the course of a two-month battle. While the Soviets declared victory, the insurgents they faced were commanded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, who used American stinger missiles to impose steep losses on the Soviets, and he remains the leader of a major insurgent group today.

Things haven’t changed much. During his previous embed in Afghanistan in 2008, Ackerman reported the next unit responsible for this same stretch of road had ambitious plans to do the exact same thing. Now we’re in 2010, and after three years precious little has been done to secure or pave that stretch of road. The military continues to insist that efforts to pave the roads are the key to securing Afghanistan, against all evidence to the contrary.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Afghanistan, conditions deteriorate along the paved roads. In the northwest of the country, which is not an epicenter of the insurgency, bandits have seized control of the roads and routinely rob travelers. In Badghis province, despite millions of dollars in development, the roads remain unfinished and the Taliban have successfully used opposition to them as propaganda.

Why does the international  ommunity focus so intently on road construction? It’s difficult to say. There is a belief, justified in many ways, that well-paved roads are a necessary step toward fostering economic development. Roads do little for commerce, however, if they’re controlled by criminals and insurgents, and paving them seems to make road-based crime worse. There is also a belief, almost religious in its adherence to faith over fact, that paving roads somehow reduces the emplacement of IEDs — even though the many thousands of miles of paved roads have accompanied a dramatic increase in the use of IEDs by insurgents.

Like far too many aid projects in Afghanistan, the relentless focus on road construction probably has as much to do with western preferences as it does with specific benefits to Afghan communities. Paved roads make traveling in the lumbering, top-heavy, IED-resistant MRAP vehicles much easier than dirt tracks. It’s easy to point to miles of roads paved as a metric for spending development dollars, even when it’s difficult or impossible to explain how those roads have benefited the communities they affect. Indeed, the bizarre obsession on road construction is a symptom of the aid project in Afghansitan-writ large, preferring large showcase projects to smaller ones with greater immediate benefit to communities, focusing on hard metrics instead of specific outcomes, and doing what is familiar instead of what is effective. In that sense, the push to pave Afghanistan won’t change meaningfully, probably ever – road construction will probably remain a centerpiece of the development community, even after the U.S. eventually draws down its troops. Maybe, by then, building these roads will actually make sense.

Joshua Foust is a military analyst specializing in Afghanistan, Pakistan and post-Soviet Central Asia. He blogs at www.registan.net.