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Road projects play key role in battling Afghan insurgents

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The Silk Road still has a hint of exoticism after all these years, evoking images of Marco Polo, caravans and spices.

But the reality is much more prosaic in modern-day Afghanistan. The passage of time has done little to improve the archaic dirt paths that once carried Afghan lapis lazuli to Egyptian princes.

That’s about to change, though. Aided by a nearly fivefold increase in emergency spending, U.S. forces have launched a road-building spree in Bamyan, Kapisa, Panjshir and Parwan provinces in eastern Afghanistan in order to tie rural farmers to lucrative markets, grow roadside businesses and chase back insurgents.

"We’re actually rebuilding the Silk Road," said Lt. Col. William Conrad, the civil-military affairs officer for Task Force Warrior, the unit in charge of the area.

And there’s a much more pressing benefit, made clear by a ubiquitous saying here: "Where the roads end, the Taliban begins."

The lack of roads gives enemy fighters freedom of movement that they don’t have when U.S. forces can roll in anytime to bolster the people’s courage to stand up against insurgents.

Bad roads also limit the reach of provincial governments. Current government influence is limited to a small radius centered on provincial seats in eastern Bamyan and western Kapisa.

Road shortages also deter businesses that could employ the area’s young men, making the men more susceptible to insurgent recruitment. It is no coincidence that one of last year’s worst fights happened when Taliban fighters tried to overrun a small U.S. outpost in Wanat, a village just outside reach of a road, Conrad said.

Militants have threatened contractors and blown up a bridge — although the bridge needed to be redone anyway.

To be sure, the current roads aren’t impassable. Afghan jingle trucks are famous for skirting impossibly rugged terrain. But they do make it impossible for farmers to make profitable trips to major markets.

"You put in a road, things start popping up around it," said Capt. Jonathan Merrill, the development officer for the 101st Airborne Division’s Special Troops Battalion.

New money

The importance of building roads is not new in Afghanistan: A road project in Kunar province is widely credited with beating back insurgents starting in 2006.

But launching a region-wide road project requires ample amounts of money. Roads cost between $300,000 and $400,000 per kilometer, depending on how rugged and remote the location.

The World Bank, the Afghan government, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other offices all help fund road projects. Each agency offers its own benefits and challenges, but all have one thing in common: They are slower than most military commanders would like.

Speedy construction is critical. Afghans living day-to-day have a hard time appreciating the benefits of projects that won’t help them for months or years to come. Each month that goes by without progress allows insurgents to make further inroads into the population.

The solution came with something known as CERP money — funds from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program.

Commanders have a pool of discretionary money to quickly initiate projects that help improve security. Proposals must go through a comparatively brief review, but they do not have to go through the lengthy appropriations process that is required for most other funding sources.

This type of money has exploded as interest in Afghanistan has increased. Task Force Warrior will spend $200 million in CERP money in 2009, about five times the $40 million to $45 million it spent in 2008, Conrad said. About $115 million in CERP money will go to roads.

Meanwhile, Italy, Japan, USAID and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also have major road projects in the area.

Task Force Warrior also had to rework its planning process to fully streamline the road construction. They now have a system that could allow for construction on CERP roads to begin within two months.

The roads are usually ready for use around 180 days after construction begins. Meanwhile, roads paid for by other means may not be ready for up three years.

The construction has also driven private industry. Privately-owned hot-batch asphalt and crushed rock plants are popping up across the provinces, even though they cost $500,000 to $1 million apiece to build.

The future

In his book "The Accidental Guerrilla," counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen cautions that roads alone aren’t a panacea: "The reason for the [road] program’s success [in Kunar] appears to have relatively little to do with the road itself, and much more to do with insightful American and Afghan leaders who have used the process of the road’s construction as a vehicle for political maneuver designed to drive a wedge between the local people, the local guerrillas and the hard-core Taliban leadership in this area."

Task Force Warrior soldiers don’t plan to stop at laying pavement. In the Koklami Valley, for example, there is a string of 24 villages that can be accessed only by paths that are little more than foot trails, Merrill said. The battalion is building a 5-kilometer section of road through the valley to improve access.

This, in turn, will allow the Afghan Ministry of Public Works to build a 14-kilometer gravel extension. Soldiers will then target the area with medical relief missions and school projects. USAID also wants to help the villagers take advantage of the estimated 100,000 tons of high-quality marble that could be quarried from the area.

Said Col. Stephen Jeselink, the task force’s deputy commander, "We’re trying to show this region is primed for economic development."

Conrad is fully aware of the challenges that Afghanistan’s roads face. But looking at the hundreds of kilometers of road planned for the four provinces, he’s excited about the day when Afghanistan again has a network to make it proud.

"I think this will help end the war as much as anything," Conrad said.


View Illustration:
Rebuilding the Old Silk Road


Speeding up construction

Sharing information: Officers are rapidly declassifying all projects funded by the Commander’s Emergency Response Program to improve communication with the Afghans, other U.S. government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

Standardizing contracts: Previous agreements included vague language that left open the possibility for contractors to take shortcuts. The team created standardized contracts that give exact road specifications, giving the assessors more leverage when pressing contractors to do good work.

Speeding up estimates: Leaders created a road cost calculator to help teams on the ground. The estimates are tied to the current price of oil and crushed rock, the two major road expenses. To get an estimate, the leader doing the project only has to plug in the length of the road and the ruggedness of the terrain on a scale of 1 to 5 — with 1 being level land and 5 being large mountains. The computer does the rest.

Sharing the work: Planners divided each road project into 10- to 20-kilometer stretches that builders can finish in less than 180 days. Multiple construction companies work on their sections simultaneously to finish lengthy roads within the 180-day limit.

Sticking to the timeline: Builders who don’t finish their roads on time lose $500 each day they’re late.

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