Counter-Terrorism: The Roads To Victory


November 9, 2011: Pakistan has undertaken an ambitious effort to build roads in the tribal territories. Ostensibly done for military reasons, to make it easier to get troops to areas where Islamic terror groups (especially the Taliban) like to hide out, there is also an economic benefit. Many farmers and herders in the tribal territories know that they can get higher prices for their crops and animals if they had a cost-effective way to move the goods. The roads make the farmers and herders wealthier. The Taliban don't like this, because one thing the country folk can buy is more guns, and trucks. This makes the non-radical tribesmen better able to defend themselves from the Taliban. Currently, the Islamic radicals use their militias to extort cash and services (meals and somewhere to live) from rural villagers. The wealthier tribes, usually because they have access to roads, can resist the Taliban. But in the roadless backcountry the Taliban tend to get their way.

The Pakistani army not only supplies road building equipment, in addition to that brought in by contractors, but they also provide armed guards. The Pakistanis are pretty certain the roads strategy will work, because they have been watching it work in neighboring Afghanistan. NATO and U.S. forces have been 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 and buried 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.

Roads, or the lack of them, have played an important role in local history. Afghanistan is the poorest nation in Asia, and the tribal territories just across the border in Pakistan are not much better off. Afghanistan 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.

The Russian 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.

The large expense of building roads in Afghanistan, especially the cost of guarding the road builders, is often criticized in the media. But if you check the historical records, roads are worth it, especially in the long run.




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