Roads aren’t just roads

A political manoeuver in counterinsurgency. Is the Indian government reading Kilcullen?

The Naxalite menace is again in the news — and obviously for the wrong reasons. A score of policemen or paramilitaries killed in cold blood do not generate much emotional turbulence in Delhi. The reaction in Delhi to these deaths is shockingly similar to the news report of a few thousand innocents being butchered in a genocide in Sudan. As if it doesn’t concern New Delhi.

Notwithstanding the exhortations of the alarmists, it is difficult to believe that the Naxal problem today is similar to the situation in Kashmir in the 1990s — an insurgency abetted by a foreign country and part of a global jehadi network. At a basic level, naxalism is a more a problem of governance — with political, social, economic and security angles — than classical ethno-religious insurgency. Well, then all counterinsurgencies are problems of governance that demand a final political solution.

There can be no argument about improving the security situation in the naxal-infested areas. While that has to be the utmost priority for the state, the next best thing that the state can do is building roads. So it came as a pleasant surprise that Indian government has decided to allot Rupees 1,000 crore  in 2009-10 for road construction in naxal-infested areas.

Are roads really that important? Well, yes. The experience of counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen in Afghanistan shows that building roads is a successful political manoeuvre in counterinsurgency operations.

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.

Here is his summary of political, economic and military benefits of road construction.

(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.

So, is constructing roads the panacea to all insurgencies? Of course not, unless road construction is part of a coherent politico-military strategy.

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.

Experience from other naxal-infested areas show that it is not easy to construct roads, even when money is available. The Indian government has made a decent start by signalling its intentions for constructing roads in these areas. The centre, the state governments and local administration now need to approach this road construction “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”.


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5 Responses to Roads aren’t just roads

  1. Armchair Analyst February 12, 2009 at 1:36 am #

    Perhaps a similar road building effort in the NE states could produce results there? Developing infrastructure there would also likely help foster economic activity and provide strategic advantages vis large neighboring states?

    India has a lot of roads to build…

  2. keshav February 12, 2009 at 5:13 am #

    @Armchair Analyst -
    You took the words right out of my mouth. China has been doing this in Tibet and the Northeast for quite some time now. Building infrastructure in general will always help.

  3. Huvishka February 12, 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    Appreciate this post…
    David’s summary is highly logical. Hope someone puts these suggestions into practice.
    Come to think of it, wouldn’t BRO the appropriate organization with the expertise to deliver in the North-East, Naxalite corridor as well as in Afghanistan..
    Curious to know if someone has analyzed BRO in terms of their budgets, performance, resource utilization?
    Also, would it be just roads that bring about the said objectives in counter-insurgency? What would the role be of rail in CI?

  4. Venkat February 13, 2009 at 2:44 pm #

    Just an utopian thought – had these roads been built within 3 – 5 years after 1947, would these naxalites have reasons to exist?

  5. Beecee February 16, 2009 at 7:15 pm #

    Kilcullen’s theory is a truism that, one presumed, was well understood by Indian administratve and security set up years ago. That it was not acted upon is of little surprise in our context.
    But what I find really interesting in the article is that the field commander was able to commission a study to assess the impact of his ops.

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