What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Country roads - For donkeys or for trucks?

"Can country roads take us home / To the place where we belong?"
Interesting discussion of the significance of roads in a counterinsurgency campaign as well as in state-building and economic development:
David Kilcullen vs. Joshua Foust. (Read: of course they are not actually duelling over this. Their opinions do differ at crucial points, and Josh asks some important questions regarding Kilcullen's thought process and methodology to see how Kilcullen arrived at his conclusions.)
My quick sidenotes are the following:
- Roads are important primarily for economic development. Since the latter is an important antidote of conflict in general, it's good to see pushes being made on many fronts to improve the whole of the regional highway network around and inside Afghanistan, too. And it's probably not much of a stretch to think the same relationship works on the local level, in the case of smaller, local road connections providing access to e.g. the market for villages.
- The latter factor gives roads importance in nation-building even - no, not state-bulding: here I mean specifically nation-building. The building of an at least loosely networked, otherwise imagined, community of local communities as the basis for an Afghan polity. By bringing people into more, mutually profitable interaction. Of course this is not going to have its impact overnight. Rather a generation's time would have to pass in peace and stability. Which is kind of a big thing to ask for now.
- "Access to villages:" one can't not notice the ambuiguity. You could put it as "access to" vs. "access for" villages.
Just like Afghan rulers traditionally weren't keen on making Afghanistan more accessible through the development of regional infrastructure, e.g. railway lines, to external powers in the region, the Afghan village can be suspicious of the outside world wanting access to it, by tradition. Which is why you see the high walls of qalas. And sometimes village elders of only secondary rank stepping forward to meet strangers, presenting themselves as the actual leaders of their community (see a take on local power structures here). And some of the villages located away from the road instead of spreading along and around it. (I can't say anything Dupree hasn't said before of course.)
- The connection between roads and local security. I find some of the points by Kilcullen quite plausible, thinking it through now more thoroughly, concerning a somewhat reduced IED threat and the process-related benefits of involving local leaders and stake-holders in an MEO (mutually enticing opportunity). I'm surprised Kilcullen isn't aware of the expression "mutually enticing opportunity," or is at least not using it. This is a textbook conflict resolution approach anyway. The process also offers the chance for the overseeing PRT to do and refine human terrain mapping, as well as to increase in importance through stepping into arrangements positioned as a guarantor third party verifying credible commitment from parties involved, in all sorts of deals. Again, textbook conflict resolution.
- Regarding the sort of dynamics that Kilcullen describes like this:
"It facilitates the movement of friendly forces: vehicles can travel 8-10 times faster on paved all-weather roads than on dirt tracks, and thus cover more ground.
This, in turn, allows fewer troops to cover a larger area, or to cover the same area more densely, so that a smaller force can secure a larger population base."
... here's a video to show why one doesn't like to travel bumpy dirt roads that can only be travelled at slow speed and at great peril of falling off cliffs. Kill zones can be set up even more easily and this video shows this from the insurgents' perspective (yes, it takes place in Kunar province - h/t 2 Péter Wagner for pointing out this video):

- There are risks with this process, too. Unless the comprehensive inclusion of stake-holders is managed carefully, grievances and spoilers may emerge. ISAF has done road construction in southern Afghanistan in the past in some instances largely ignorant of local interests. The result: alienation because of road construction ruining complicated local water-sharing schemes.
- I agree with Joshua Foust, that that's not all that there is to roads' importance, and that roads may not make insurgent activity - even IEDs - disappear. Insurgents will adapt, possibly in ways that eventually not only they may become separated from the population but the soldiers may end up so, too. Besides going for hit-and-run attacks in remotely populated areas, insurgents can also shift their activity to more densely populated areas which they can better supply through roads with IED components, and switch to something akin to the urban terrorism mode that wrought much havoc in Iraq and worsened coalition troops' situation before a critical part of the population came to the consensus that enough was enough.
All this doesn't affect the basic fact that roads can be useful for all sorts of things.
Why not promise villagers some trucks for loyalty by the way? If the slogan is that their access to markets shall be improved. We're not asphalting the roads for the donkeys, right?


Joshua Foust said...

While I appreciate the shout out (of course), and I do like that at least someone else is questioning Kilcullen instead of just nodding his head, I don't like being put in opposition to his ideas. I think roads are an essential piece of the reconstruction process, and I share Kilcullen's desire to increase cultural awareness and sensitivity within a COIN framework.

At the same time, the military value of roads here is just ludicrously oversold, and not at all supported by the evidence on hand. If a no-name reporter made the same claims in the same way—all hearsay, unsourced quotes from government agents, and theory, with not a jot of metric, analysis, or practicality behind it—they would be laughed at.

But Kilcullen gets hands smacking the front of the forehead with an "of course" by far too many smart academics. I don't get it. Do you?

Péter MARTON said...

Agreed. Kilcullen is like a prophet for some people, apparently.
Sorry for the awkwardness of the boxing contest-like presentation, I just didn't have much time to write this post, and it was simple to put it like that - I'll add a remark there to point out this is only to say that you had contrasting takes on this one.

Joshua Foust said...

Oh, I doubt we have to get that anal about it. What concerns me even more than the "vs" thing (which matters little long run, given how many people pay attention to our site) is how few people critically examine Kilcullen's work.

I think you're right that too many view him as a prophet (PBUH or something), and this has led to certain degradation in rigor. Furthermore, I'm baffled so few noticed the problems in saying roads = security.

The lack of critical review of the so-called "founding fathers" of modern counterinsurgency, and the hostile stance taken toward some who try, does not speak well of its intellectual health and foundations.

Péter MARTON said...

Sure - I mean it's not Kilcullen's fault he's viewed by some as a prophet.
I'd probably hate being regarded as one, although this is not a possibility :)
To go further with nailing the problem: what I especially dislike is the tendency to talk about "counterinsurgency experts" as such. Being knowledgable about counterinsurgency requires all sorts of modes of knowledge, and the currently especially strong tendency to identify "COIN experts" serves to mark the people who can legitimately synthesise such diverse knowledges and make heavenly manifestations in the jungle of seemingly incomprehensible data and a cacophony of views.
No wonder in the end dogma may emerge in the place of doctrine as a result.