Political Maneuver in Counterinsurgency

Road-Building in Afghanistan

Part 1 of a Series on Political Maneuver in Counterinsurgency

Dr. David Kilcullen

As a tactics instructor in the mid-1990s, teaching British platoon commanders at the School of Infantry, I spent many weeks on extended field exercises in the wilds of south Wales and on windswept Salisbury Plain. Both landscapes are studded with Roman military antiquities, relics of ancient counterinsurgency campaigns -- mile-castles, military roads, legion encampments -- as well as the Iron Age hill-forts of the Romans' insurgent adversaries. Teaching ambushing, I often found that ambush sites I chose from a map, even on the remotest hillsides, would turn out (once I dragged my weary, rucksack-carrying ass to the actual spot) to have Roman or Celtic ruins on them, and often a Roman military road nearby: call me lacking in self-assurance, but I often found this a comforting vote of confidence in my tactical judgment from the collective wisdom of the ancestors.

Like the Romans, counterinsurgents through history have engaged in road-building as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication and bringing economic development, health and education to the population. Clearly, roads that are patrolled by friendly forces or secured by local allies also have the tactical benefit of channeling and restricting insurgent movement and compartmenting terrain across which guerrillas could otherwise move freely. But the political impact of road-building is even more striking than its tactical effect.

This is my first Small Wars Journal post for several months; since leaving Iraq last year I have been working mainly on Afghanistan, in the field and in various coalition capitals. This brief essay (brief by my risibly low standards, anyhow!) describes recent road-building efforts in Afghanistan. A follow-on piece will explore the broader notion of political maneuver in counterinsurgency, using road-building as one of several examples.

Case Study -- Road-Building in Kunar Province, Afghanistan, 2006-2008

A few weeks ago I was out on the ground with coalition and Afghan units in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, and spent a short time with a Provincial Reconstruction Team and its associated Brigade Combat Team in the Kunar River Valley.

I last worked this area in summer and fall of 2006, supporting General Karl Eikenberry, then commanding Combined Forces Command Afghanistan. He was about to wind up his headquarters and hand over to the NATO International Security Assistance Force; at his invitation I took a small inter-agency field team into Afghanistan to study and record U.S. counterinsurgency techniques. Incidentally, this produced a body of knowledge on best-practice counterinsurgency which informed our efforts to execute the "surge" strategy in Iraq a few months later, so that some of the techniques we ended up applying in Iraq were first developed in Afghanistan.

Since my last visit, the area has seen a remarkable turn-around in security, largely the result of a consistent U.S. strategy of partnering with local communities to separate the insurgents from the people, bring tangible benefits of governance and development to the population, and help the population choose (elect) their own local leaders. Road-building has been a key part of this effort.

Here are two extracts from my field notebook for the recent trip, which describe the project:

[Extract 1 -- Field Notes, 2 miles SW of Asadabad, Kunar Province, 10:30 AM March 13th 2008]

"The PRT's main project at present is the opening up of the Korengal Valley, to assist in clearing out a former major stronghold of the enemy, and to bring development and governance to the area. The main push is centered on driving a paved road through the valley to allow forces to secure the villages, driving the enemy up into the hills...and affording freedom of action to civilian agencies so that they can work with the people to extend governance and development.

The road project involves a series of negotiated agreements with tribal and district elders -- the approach the PRT is taking is to make an agreement with the elders to construct the portion of the road that runs through their tribal territory. This has allowed them to better understand the geographical and functional limits of each elder's authority, and to give the people a sense of ownership over the road: since a local workforce has constructed it (and is then paid to protect it) they are more likely to defend it against Taliban attacks. Also, the project generates disputes (over access, resources, timing, pay, labor etc) that have to be resolved between tribes and community groups, and this allows Afghan government representatives to take the lead in resolving issues and negotiating settlements, thereby connecting the population to the provincial and local administration and demonstrating the tangible benefits of supporting the government.

The PRT tracks the current rate the Taliban are offering as payment for attacks against the road or vehicles traveling on it, and ensures they pay more than the enemy (though only just). Once the road is through and paved, it is much harder to place IEDs under the tarmac surface or on the concrete verge, and IEDs are easier to detect if emplaced. The road provides an alternative works project to prevent people joining the Taliban, the improved ease of movement makes business easier and transportation faster and cheaper, and thus spurs economic growth, and the graded black-top road allows friendly troops to move much more easily and quickly than before, along the valley floor, helping secure population centers and drive the enemy up into the hills where they are separated from the population -- allowing us to target them more easily and with less risk of collateral damage, and allowing political, intelligence, aid, governance, education and development work to proceed with less risk. Road building is not a panacea, but the way this PRT and the local maneuver units are approaching this project is definitely a best practice".

[Extract 2 -- Field Notes, 8 miles NE of Asadabad, Kunar River Valley, 11:35 AM 13th March 2008]

"We exited from the PRT base in a four-car humvee convoy, through a rough HESCO-and-razorwire gatehouse, then bumped down a rough dirt track to the main Kunar Valley road, a two-lane asphalted roadway, well-graded and with a deep concrete monsoon drain on the left (west, or hill-ward) side to catch run-off, frequent culverts made of concrete, a stone retaining wall on the downhill (river) side, and yellow steel road hazard markers. This road is newly completed and very good -- the best I have ever driven in rural Afghanistan and a real feat of civil engineering. It was mainly constructed by an Indian contractor using local labor and Indian government aid money. The area south of Asadabad is even newer, and was a multi-million dollar USAID project.

The tactical advantages of the road, as well as the economic benefits, are much as I described earlier, and in this case the road (which parallels the border five kilometers away) also provides a strategic advantage for lateral movement of forces along the frontier, and to interdict Taliban infiltration routes -- though [the Brigade Commander] said that parties of enemy still infiltrate in this area, coming down by night from the hills on the Pakistani side, crossing the river on truck inner tubes, spending a few days attempting to do armed propaganda work in the villages on the Afghan side of the river, then moving up into the hills to avoid our patrols. Many of them congregate NW of the river, just beyond the [XXXX] valley, in a district we rarely visit and which remains a pocket of insurgent activity -- but one the Brigade tolerates because there is no access from this isolated valley to the rest of the population and their focus is on securing the bulk of the population rather than clearing terrain, and because they lack the forces to secure every part of the province and have therefore sensibly "triaged" their AO.

We moved fast along the road...as we drove, [the Brigade Commander] and I were discussing key development issues. His two main concerns are water -- the river is low this season after only light snowfall over winter (by Afghan standards) and he is worried about irrigation and crop rotation issues -- and electricity generation capacity, which is now the key limiting factor on development as basic infrastructure problems begin to be solved (roads, bridges etc). Like the other Regional Command-East commanders, he is all about development and governance. Having fought a hard kinetic fight to gain control of the province in 2005-6, during [Colonel, former Brigade Commander] Mick Nicholson's time, the focus has now shifted to economic and political issues, with ANA/ANP doing the bulk of the security work, supported by a smaller US footprint and by local agreements and neighborhood watch forces.

The PRT operates a "10 kilometer rule" which stipulates that 80% of unskilled labor on any project has to come from within 10km of it -- this helps build community jobs and ownership over projects, and gives the people a stake in defending them against the enemy. ...

[The USAID team leader] later pointed out to me that it has become a widespread PRT practice to have local communities construct at least part of the projects themselves, especially the perimeter and security fences and walls, to give them a sense of pride and ownership in the project (as well as longer-term employment -- rather than build many projects simultaneously they space the work out over time to generate long-term jobs). She said this makes it more likely that the population will defend the facility, prevent their men being involved in attacks on it, or at the very least give early warning to the government and security forces if they become aware of insurgent plans to attack the project. In this sense, community involvement is a source of both economic development and strategic (or indirect) force protection."

Political, Security and Economic Effects

From these field notes, we can summarize the political, military and economic effects of the Kunar road project. Road construction in the Kunar River valley appears to have at least the following 16 key effects:

(1) It separates the enemy from the population -- instead of being in the villages among the people, the insurgents are now forced up into the sparsely populated (often uninhabited) hills. This has political as well as security effects: the population gets a visual impression of the enemy firing down into the valley (where they live) and the security forces defending the villages, rather than (as previously) the enemy living in the villages and the security forces attacking the villages to get at the enemy.

(2) It makes the enemy easier to detect and target, since they are out in the hills away from population centers, allowing them to be seen and targeted (including by air power) with much less risk of collateral damage or non-combatant casualties.

(3) It restricts enemy infiltration and cross-border movement, reducing the enemy's freedom of maneuver, compartmenting terrain they would otherwise cross freely, making it harder for them to go where the security forces aren't, and thus increasing the population's sense of security.

(4) 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.

(5) 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.

(6) It allows civilian agencies to access the population more easily, so that officials, teachers, health workers, aid agencies and other representatives of government can bring the benefits of governance and economic development to the people.

(7) The paved surface makes IEDs harder to emplace and easier to detect, because insurgents have to choose between digging through a hard, clean surface layer (which takes time and a larger emplacement party, making it more likely the emplacers will be caught, and disturbs the road surface making the IED easier to spot) or surface-laying the IED, again making it easier to spot.

(8) This, in turn, reduces IED casualties and gives the population greater confidence in the security of the roads, increasing their feeling of deriving tangible benefit from the government and encouraging them to invest in crops or other economic activity, because the likelihood of produce reaching market safely is increased.

(9) The reduced IED threat also means that security forces can adopt a lower threat posture, allowing them to interact more closely and in a more friendly and collaborative manner with the local population.

(10) The road builds connectivity with and confidence in government officials, who are involved heavily in resolving the disputes and negotiations created around the construction of the road. It also allows these officials to 'learn the trade' of responsive local governance and builds human capacity in local officials and institutions.

(11) The construction of the road, and its associated negotiations, allows tribal leaders to demonstrate and exercise initiative and authority, restoring their influence and credibility, which had been eroded by the internal challenge to their traditional authority from Taliban insurgents and religious extremists.

(12) The road creates jobs and promotes business, facilitates agriculture, and allows farmers to get crops to market faster before they spoil. In addition to the work generated in constructing the road itself, secondary economic activities (selling fuel, roadside stalls to service increased traffic, increased customer base for local businesses that now reach a wider market, reduced cost of commodities that are now subject to lower transportation overheads) have similar economic benefit.

(13) The road opens up remote valleys, bringing populations (like the Korengalis) into contact with the government and with wider Afghan society for the first time. This brings economic, governance and security benefits, along with a backlash of resistance to outside contact which often has to be carefully handled by government and community leaders.

(14) Construction of a denser road network provides multiple alternate routes, thereby lessening the chance of ambush. In 2005-6 most Afghan valleys had, at best, a single dirt track along the valley floor, often poorly graded and closely following rivers and streambeds with multiple crossings. This meant that each valley had only one way in and one way out -- so that if you went up a valley, the enemy knew you were coming back the same way and could ambush you on your return. The denser road network allows convoys to move via multiple routes and thus makes them less predictable and harder to ambush.

(15) The road gives the people a stake in continued security and economic progress, since they are part of the process of constructing it, maintaining it, using it to support their business and personal activities, and they benefit from the closer relationship with state institutions that can provide essential services. The process of constructing the road creates alternative employment to the insurgency, an important factor in an environment when most communities allow their young men to fight for the Taliban for money, as an alternative to unemployment, but where only a small proportion of local guerrillas are ideologically motivated.

(16) The local community partnerships and alliances created during the road construction process generate indirect/strategic force protection rather than solely tactical/direct force protection. That is, rather than relying on direct force protection at the tactical level (through a higher threat posture, more armored vehicles, weapons and so on), a force can rely on early warning and assistance from local partners who know the environment better, allowing it to adopt a less threatening posture and thus avoid alienating the local community.

Generalizing from the Kunar Case

How possible is it to generalize from this example? 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.

We might also note that terrain, climate, demographics and ethnography play a key role here. The terrain is mountainous: indeed, it is one of the most topographically forbidding operating environments in the world. Most valleys in this area have never in recorded history possessed more than a single dirt track along the valley floor, some lack even that. The valleys are twisting V-shaped canyons in the upper reaches of streams and rivers, extending in the lower reaches to wider corridors with alluvial plains adjacent to major braided watercourses. The climate is brutal: valleys are snowed-in for several months of the year, making a hard-top all-weather road such as has been constructed in Kunar a major change in the seasonal pattern of life in the hills. The population lives almost entirely in semi-fortified townships and compounds along the valley floor, while the hills are hardly populated, barren, steep, waterless and incapable of supporting life on a large scale. In this environment, warfare has a seasonal character, with a traditional lull over winter and harvest time, and a traditional peak period over summer and fall. The population is tribal, with a traditional way of life that balances tribal elders against religious leaders and representatives of a distant, scarcely-noticed government; this "traditional governance triangle" has been heavily eroded by religious extremists and the Taliban who have threatened the traditional dominance of the elders, creating tension and giving traditional leaders an interest in partnering with an outside actor who can restore their authority.

Conclusion -- Roads Ain't Roads

In summary, like the Romans and other counterinsurgents through history, U.S. forces in Kunar, in a close and genuine partnership with local communities and the Afghan government (most especially, a highly competent and capable Provincial Governor), have engaged in a successful road-building program as a tool for projecting military force, extending governance and the rule of law, enhancing political communication and bringing economic development, health and education to the population. Roads in the frontier area that are patrolled by friendly forces and secured by local allies also have the tactical benefit of channeling and restricting insurgent movement and compartmenting terrain across which guerrillas could otherwise move freely, and their political and economic effects are even more striking.

All of this seems to suggest, in effect, that "roads ain't roads". To generate the effects listed above, a road-building project probably needs to be consciously approached as an integrated form of political maneuver, and the approach taken also probably needs to take into account the human, topographic, political, cultural and economic environment in which that maneuver will occur. All this is happening in Kunar today, with very substantial positive effects on the counterinsurgency campaign in the province. But replicating this success in other places is likely to demand detailed study of the environment and an understanding of political maneuver as a counterinsurgency technique -- something I will address in the next post in this series.

Dr David Kilcullen is a civilian counterinsurgency expert who advises several coalition and allied governments. These are his personal views only.

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Comments

Cross Posting my comment from KOW site:

An interesting read. The whole idea of 'lines of communication is often studied at the strategic level (especially within naval studies) and clearly goes beyond 'roads is roads. Roads (and railroads), after all, transformed Europe into a modern, administered polity, rather than a series of unconnected localities. Kilcullen does a nice job of taking the analysis down to the operational and tactical level.

Not that Kilcullen is advocating a 100% focus on roads and road-building, but I think there are some cautionary remarks to be made:

1. Roads are (here it comes) a two-way street. If they become too much of a focus, then they serve to restrict freedom of movement of the population and COIN forces. As much as they facilitiate travel, they can also serve to canalise it. The German forces working in Yugoslavia in WWII found that they controlled the roads, and not much else. Roman road mastery did not deter Hannibal.

2. If roads become elevated to the level whereby there are the icons of success and progress, then they become a vulnerability, as well as a strength. Perhaps IEDs will give way to simple sabotage, rendering sections of the roads impassable, or at least reducing their mobility enhancing effect. If you build it, you have to protect it.

3. Mega-projects (like the Afghan Ring Road) are fraught with other political problems too. Who builds them? Who benefits from the construction contracts? In some cases, all that is achieved is that corruption and warlordism/mafia-ism, powerful ammunition in the narratives of the insurgents, are replicated, yet again. The 'electrification of villages in Bosnia provides an interesting counter-example. Not every village could be hooked up to the grid, even now. The frustration over 'who gets power and who is left out is palpable. And guess what? A friendly Iranian or Saudi NGO will help you get your village on the grid, and all they ask in return is for permission to fix up the mosque while they are at it.

4. If they are built by the 'occupying powers they may serve well enough during the occupation, but may turn fallow when turned over to the local administrators later. Will there be funding for maintenance and upkeep? Or are they a 'quick fix, with little enduring benefit?

While the tactical and immediate benefits of increased mobility should not be taken for granted, there is a deeper concern here. Roads are not just roads, to be sure. Are they a symbol of 'modernisation, of progress, of Westernisation? The globe is littered with colonial and World Bank projects (roads, dams, canals, etc) that were supposed to have a civilising/development effect. Many are failures, in spite of themselves. What is their attraction: Are they merely something that is easily measured? Are we going to replace the "body count" with the "tarmac tally"? Like the steamboats in Conrads Heart of Darkness, roads in Afghanistan may be metaphors, and not just positive ones at that.

Dave, first Id like to say thanks for putting something up the rest of us can contemplate, criticize and consider in both the context of Afghanistan, and the broader thoughts on COIN and BPC and development. There are not too many who would offer something up that has not already been chewed on till tasteless; so this offers the chance at fresh thought and discussion for both the practitioner side as well as the theorist side. I also think its good you put it somewhere where the uniformed side can think about it in terms of its tactical, operational and strategic context side by side with the civilian / political side that needs the best information and analysis to think about policy and understand the nature of this war.

Second, here are the thoughts Ive got after reading this, and some of the comments your piece has engendered around the block/blogs.

- In addition to faster response times, and access to villages, it also decreases some of the LOG burden - opening up remote locations to something other then multiple turns by CH-47, or parachute drop is a significant option and allows those resources to be employed elsewhere.

- With regard to maneuver, intel and fires - If the enemy wants to attack the roads as a counter to the reasons why they were constructed, this allows some focus to ISR, Manuever and Fires assets. To be most effective, IED ambushes of the various flavors need to be triggered by someone who can see the kill zone (optimally they are combined with direct and indirect fires, and laid out in an area fashion to catch the response elements). That means they have to be in the kill zone at a time when the target moves through it. If you control the movement of the target (be it a US patrol and Afghan patrol, or commerce) into those areas best suited for an ambush, then it does not have to be an equation that unfavorably benefits the enemy. Weve disrupted lots of ambushes by using patrols and ISR focus to catch the enemy when he is either in transit to the ambush site, or is getting set in. When we catch the enemy in this manner it generally favors us - they are unprepared, we have better stuff, better comms, better access to fires, and they are focusing on another task. Ive been on both ends of it, I prefer being the windshield vice the bug.

This is one area where technology combined with good analysis and freedom of maneuver benefits us. The enemy can always decide not to attack, but by doing so he allows the counter-insurgent freedom of maneuver (of both a tactical/operational and the political sort). One of the biggest challenges is finding the enemy. If we create conditions that are favorable to us by building roads and as such the enemy feels he must contest it in order to prevent the erosion of his support, then I find that useful- particularly if the enemy in question is of the "dyed in the wool, only way to convince him is by a bullet" variety. We separate this group from the other by ensuring there is economic and political recourse available - or as Dave mentions, ensuring that we pay better for what is essentially a more sustainable profession.

- As Dave mentions, he also cedes some of his own freedom of maneuver of like variety. As LOCs are improved and extended his geographical safehavens are encroached upon. If this is combined with political and economic development then his intellectual safehavens are diminished as well. He can retreat up the mountain, back into the hinterlands, but as long as the counter-insurgents continue to match security, economic and political development to the infrastructure development, the insurgents will be at a disadvantage in terms of means. If at the same time as we develop roads we build afghan capacity in those areas to make it sustainable by them, the insurgents will continue to see their base shrink.

- It is not only a strategy of exhaustion in terms of the enemy; it is also one of development to secure the gains and to secure their losses.

- Ive seen some criticism of this by comparing it to Les Graus work in "The Bear went over the Mountain". Most of it has been with regard to the way the terrain and prowess of the Muj to allowed them to successfully ambush the Soviets and their Afghan clients. While the terrain remains the same, while the people still live where they live, and while there are still many Taliban and AQ skilled in ambush, there are some differences that must be accounted for.

- To start, the first may be the political end we are pursuing and the reason why. The Soviet occupation created conditions that united opposition in a way that U.S. involvement has not, e.g. these two wars have a different political context both inside Afghanistan, and exterior to Afghanistan.

- Second, the U.S. and Afghan COIN practices are not those of the Soviet Union. While there has been women and children killed while conducting operations, it is something we have tried painstakingly to avoid, sometimes even at the expense of letting an opportunity to kill or capture significant members of the enemy. Id add that the way we are generating, organizing, educating, recruiting, training, rebuilding and advising Afghan security forces and ministerial leader is different. This is important, because the effect it creates on the ground is different - not just tactically, but politically.

- Third, while Ive read some about the Soviets and their proxy trying to create a Communist system inside Kabul - it does not create the same type of developmental effects (not the EBO types either) that building some flavor of democratic / free trade type of development does. They are different and should be considered as such. It does not mean recreating America, but it does mean not trying to recreate the Soviet Union.

While Road Building and other projects are of the type that represent other tools in the COIN kitbag other then the lethal ones, I think we realize that in order to be practical in an enemy contested environment we are still going to have to conduct offensive and defensive operations that address those who cannot or will not be reconciled to anything less then the complete fulfillment of their own political objective(s). As such we must plan and execute our operations with both the current conditions in mind as well as the endstate we are trying to achieve. I think this piece represents an important part of it, and I appreciate the work (both on paper and in the field) that went into it -again, thanks.

Best, Rob

It reminds me the historical experience of French "pacification" move in Morocco at the beginning of 20th century (with Lyautey as a guest star).
Close to your historical analogy ("romanization" functioned both by building infrastructure to lock-out rural areas, e.g. in Gaul, and promoting the "roman way of life" -i.e. the Greek City- and by co-opting local elites in the roman "cursus honorum" first at the local level and then at the Empire one), French had the tendency to view North Africa through the romantic lens of roman history: the Légion Etrangère as a roman legion (like the Third Augusta in Numidia, which was disbanded after the failure of a coup in 241 AD), the "Affaires Indigènes" as Province Administration, and so on.
Building roads in Morocco was as great a challenge as building roads in Afghanistan... and it worked.

Great and Nice Piece. I'm waiting the following part with impatience...
Cordialement
Stéphane TAILLAT

Well, you made all the qualifications that I thought I might be able to call you on, particularly regarding the involvement of locals and the fact that Kunar's governor isn't a jerk like other governors have been (or still are).

Another variable that you may want to throw into the mix is the newfound easy of traveling in and out of isolated areas, particularly out. Other rural areas (i.e., Hazarajat, parts of Tajikistan, parts of Mexico) have seen a steep decline in the number of young men due to economic migration. Might some of the young men in northern Kunar find that traveling to Jalalabad (or even Asadabad), where they may find work, is now not an epic journey?

Could Kunar and even parts of Nuristan see an exodus of young men? Afghanistan has seen a doubling of the population since 1979 and resources in rural areas are stretched quite thin. Might the bright lights of Jalalabad or Kabul lure them out more so than has already occured?

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.

Road-building in Afghanistan? A sound idea for all the reasons you outline, Dr. Kilcullen. And it is for many of these reasons and more that Iran's Pasdaran built and rebuilt the road from Iran to Herat.