Afghan Roads

Remember that slew of articles not too long ago all about how building roads was an essential element of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, because in addition to providing better access for securing the population, roads also helped integrate farflung villages into the broader economy? That’s how COIN practitioners see roads anyhow.

Here’s John McCreary on how Afghans see them:

. . . Roads are a mixed blessing because they improve the efficiency of the taxation system as well as expand the market area.

They also can be infrastructure for village improvement, but that is not the expected customary result. Roads usually mean bad business and unwanted government intrusion. This is a trait of a pre-modern outlook that must be overcome. . . .

I suppose this is as good an anecdotal illustration of why I’ll remain a great admirer of the Army’s new COIN and Stability Ops doctrine in theory, and a great skeptic in practice. To paraphrase Joshua Foust’s recent WPR Briefing, I’m just not sure we’re offering the Afghans a product they want to buy.

That said, here’s McCreary in the same post on our chances in Afghanistan:

NightWatch data base covering the past three years does not justify comments about winning or losing in Afghanistan. The Taliban presence has expanded in the past three years but it is reversible. The Taliban exploited weaknesses in the government and the forces of order.

There is no mystery or irresistible force here. The Taliban have been beaten before – in November 2001 because they were so reprehensible and militarily weak. They can be beaten again, if the Allies rediscover what worked just a few years ago.

The operative factor here, to my mind, is “militarily weak.” Yes, the Taliban are reprehensible, but frankly, I haven’t read about any Afghan powerbrokers in the past seven years that weren’t. What worked for us at the time of the invasion was that the Taliban controlled territory that they could not possibly hold against American-backed Northern Alliance forces, and that the populace was open to alternatives.

Now the Taliban no longer need to hold onto territory to win the war, and the Afghan population has discovered that the alternatives are in many cases just another flavor of reprehensible, and in many others, as Foust described, a bit clueless about what Afghans actually want. By the very criteria of COIN doctrine, that makes for tough sledding.

To really believe we have a chance of “winning” in Afghanistan, you have to believe that we can both determine what the Afghans want and deliver it. I find that a tough sell on both counts.

That’s probably why the current administration is hastening towards an ABTT policy — that is, Anyone but the Taliban — in terms of what to leave behind in Afghanistan. And even that is morphing into an ABTHT policy — Anyone but the Hardcore Taliban. For now there’s still a “democratically elected” qualifier attached. But remember, that’s describing what we leave behind, not what follows.

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