Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Asia. The place is mostly mountains
and desert, has no railroads and few roads (42,000 kilometers worth, and only
29 percent are paved.) There are few rivers, much less navigable ones, and no
access to the sea. In other words, a logistical nightmare. And not just for
modern armies. The ancients suffered as well, as they depended on living off
the local population. But most Afghans live in mountain valleys, or along the
few rivers, and tend to be self-sufficient. Not enough plunder for a really
large army. Even the Mongols, who came by and hosed the place (at least what
they could reach) pretty good, brought with them more horses than warriors
(each had several), and could not always find enough pasturage for their mounts.
A lot of places in Afghanistan avoided the Mongol invasion simply because the
formidable horsemen could not graze their way to the remote mountain valleys.
general staff warned against the 1980 invasion of Afghanistan, mainly because
there was no way to support the typically large mechanized force the Russians
preferred to use to roll over the opposition. The Russians could never supply
more than 150,000 troops in relatively roadless Afghanistan, and lost ten
percent of those troops to disease and privation, rather than combat.
So NATO and
U.S. forces are big on building roads in Afghanistan. Not just to make it
easier to get around, but also to make Afghans wealthier. Many parts of
Afghanistan produce valuable produce, and there are many unexploited natural
resources under the ground. But if you can't get the exotic fruits, or valuable
ores, out of the country, you stay poor. Most Afghans want more roads,
especially paved roads. The latter are also more difficult to use mines
roadside bombs on. The Taliban do not want roads. Not just because it makes it
easier for government or foreign troops to get around, but also because roads
bring new ideas, as well as wealth. The Taliban are content to get rich off the
heroin trade, and keep new ideas out by attacking road building projects.
Protecting the road builders has become a major military operation, and
potentially a decisive one.