Afghanistan, Roads and Counterinsurgency

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 11 months ago

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is at a state of development where the construction of roads is a significant player in counterinsurgency due to the creation of avenues of movement, interdiction and access to the population.  David Kilcullen recently wrote about this at the Small Wars Journal Blog.  It is a detailed look into this aspect of counterinsurgency and well worth the time to study it, but only a small portion is reproduced below.

On the face of it, road-building appears to be a generally-recognized form of force projection and governance extension, hence the extreme frequency of its historical use by governments, colonial administrations, occupying powers, and counterinsurgency forces through history. It is also worth recognizing that there is little that is specifically American (or Afghan) about the engineering aspects of the approach described above.

But the effects accrue not just from the road itself, but rather from a conscious and well-developed strategy that uses the road as a tool, and seizes the opportunity created by its construction to generate security, economic, governance and political benefits. This is exactly what is happening in Kunar: the road is one component, albeit a key one, in a broader strategy that uses the road as an organizing framework around which to synchronize and coordinate a series of political-military effects. This is a conscious, developed strategy that was first put in place in 2005-6 and has been consistently executed since. Thus, the mere building of a road is not enough: it generates some, but not all of these effects, and may even be used to oppress or harm the population rather than benefit it. Road construction in many parts of the world has had negative security and political effects, especially when executed unthinkingly or in an un-coordinated fashion. What we are seeing here, in contrast, is a coordinated civil-military activity based on a political strategy of separating the insurgent from the people and connecting the people to the government. In short, this is a political maneuver with the road as a means to a political end.

The Captain’s Journal left the following short comment to this article.

Very interesting, and thanks for your thoughts. I especially like the idea of using roads for force projection (easier and quicker transit for forces, easier presence with the population, visibility, etc.), and in this way, roads seem to have become a force multiplier.

Of course, VBIEDs are an issue involved with roads that would not otherwise be if the roads weren’t there (which is certainly not an argument for not having the roads). I would like to know your thoughts on dealing with the problems such as VBIEDs that are unique only to roads. Also, in spite of the difficulty of emplacing roadside IEDs, they still do as reports indicate.

Following up on this concern, from a Reuters report, it makes a difference how the road is constructed.

Spend 30 minutes talking to a U.S. military officer in Afghanistan and chances are he or she will mention one factor as crucial to the stability of the country: roads.

Geographically challenging, with vast desert plains to the south and soaring mountains in the Hindu Kush to the north and east, Afghanistan is remarkably devoid of proper roads given its size and a population approaching 30 million.

There are just 34,000 km (21,000 miles) of useable roadway in the country, of which less than a quarter is paved, according to the CIA World Factbook. By comparison, there are about 10 million km of paved roads in the United States.

Better roads are essential not only for the economy — so that farmers and merchants can get produce to markets more easily and importers can bring vital foodstuffs into the landlocked country — but also for security, since police and the army can get more quickly to remote, unstable areas.

Paved roads also make it much harder for the Taliban to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — nearly 750 of which detonated across Afghanistan last year, causing hundreds of deaths. Planting them on pot-holed, dirt tracks is easy.

“I can’t tell you how important roads are,” said Colonel Pete Johnson, the commander of U.S. forces in southeast Afghanistan, where development lags central and northern areas and paved roads are minimal.

“If we pave roads, there’s almost an automatic shift of IEDs to other areas because it makes it so much more difficult for the enemy to emplace them … Roads here mean security,” he told Reuters in an interview last week.

The Reuters report concludes with an assessment of the inefficiency of the process used to contract and build the roads, as well as lack of international funding.  But the report on roads by Col. Johnson tells us that for the time being, dirt roads mean IEDs while paved roads mean a shift of tactics or forces elsewhere due to the difficulty of emplacing IEDs into pavement.

In the future we might expect the insurgents in Afghanistan to become more efficient at roadsidebombs like their counterparts in Iraq, but for now, UAVs, patrols, and other tactics will be used to find those who emplace the IEDs, which after all, is the root of the problem.  The chase must continue.

  • trollsmasher

    Roads are the basis for all governance since the Roman times. The Romans spent more time on construction than they ever did on warfare. Here is an aspect that while the Corps has good construction I do not see them as being good at full scale infrastructure building and here is where the Army and and our fellow at KBR or some Paki firm can come in. Also a huge complaint is no jobs well get them out building roads. I am not employment expert but I know that if you wanted to go all out at this you could employ just about anyone that wanted to work.


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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Roads and was published May 18th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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