FORWARD OPERATIONS BASE BERMEL, Afghanistan
“In two tours here, I’ve yet to see anything that I’d call a road,” Staff Sgt. Carmelo Pruneda said as he kicked his vehicle - a mine-resistant ambush-protected RG-31. The armored vehicle’s leaf spring had snapped while he had attempted to turn on a road in eastern Afghanistan.
Sgt. Pruneda, a member of a 10-man Embedded Training Team charged with training the Afghan National Army, has his share of road-warrior stories. Other missions have resulted in a broken axle, three damaged vehicles and numerous punctured tires.
The road network in eastern Afghanistan is poor at best and horrid at worst. The high mountains and low desert bowls are crisscrossed by what in the United States would be called rough trails. Dusty scratches in the ground strewn with tire-devouring rocks serve as the links between outer border villages and the interior of Afghanistan. Locals use these roads daily for travel and to conduct trade.
The roads in the best condition run toward the tribal region of Pakistan, which further cements the relationship between locals and the Wazir tribes in northwestern Pakistan. Goods, materials and services are more easily obtained by traveling into Pakistan than into Afghanistan. “Why drive to Orgun for anything when Angorada is easier?” Subgovernor Mohammed Mobeen of the Bermal district asked. Angorada is a major staging and crossing point for the Taliban.
When I ask soldiers and locals what would be the best thing to build in rural Afghanistan to help with the counterinsurgency fight, the universal response is: roads. “Look, there’s no real tie between the rural people of Afghanistan and the government in Kabul; roads provide that linkage,” Capt. William Waddell said. Tribal elders provide essential government functions such as security and law and order, but they cannot build and maintain a road, he said.
The guiding principle of counterinsurgency warfare is to disentangle the insurgents from the population. The road is the basic building block. It becomes the symbol of what the central government can accomplish. The people then use the road for interprovince commerce, which also needs central government regulation. Finally, it brings money and work into the area, thus drawing away those who have attacked the coalition forces for purely monetary reasons. The current rate to launch a rocket at the U.S. and Afghan National Army forces is about $100 - significantly more than most Afghans make in a year.
“We should make it mandatory that the contractors hire a certain percentage of the workers from the areas in which the roads are being built and then use the Afghan National Army to secure the project,” Capt. Waddell said. “Then the Army is seen by the Afghans as providing security for projects with a direct and concrete benefit to the people of the local area.”
In the summer of 2008, the Taliban conducted an offensive against the one major paved road in Afghanistan - the ring road running the perimeter of the country. “Last summer, you have the locals questioning the Taliban’s decision to blow up the ring road because of the impact on them. So it appears to me that if we put in more roads, we help to separate the people from the Taliban,” said Master Sgt. Mike Spaulding. “If the government builds roads for your use, and the Taliban blows them up, which side do you want to support?”
Many of us on the ground in Afghanistan are convinced that roads are one of the best options for defeating the Taliban. A surge in engineers and construction is more suited to solving the problems of the area rather than additional combat troops.
Cory Schulz is a Nevada National Guardsman who has been serving as an Embedded Training Team chief to the Afghan National Army at Forward Operations Base Bermel, Afghanistan, since October.