Where the Road Ends

Stephen DeAngelis

June 21, 2007

The USA Today published a special report by Paul Wiseman entitled “The perils of carving a path to the Taliban’s front door” [20 June 2007]. What really drew me in was the secondary headline on the follow-on page that included the quotation, “Where the road ends, the Taliban begins.” This is exactly what my colleague Tom Barnett has been preaching for the last few years, “disconnectedness defines danger.” The bad guys in the world (as well as most of the bad things — like disease, poverty, illiteracy, slavery, war, etc.) are found in those areas of the world that are figuratively off the map — where the road ends. In Afghanistan, this is literally, not just figuratively, true. The road in question runs through “Taliban country to Tora Bora, the mountain range where Osama bin Laden slipped away in 2001.” The Taliban, however, like most bad guys aren’t interested in having the world beat a path to their door.

“U.S. officials believe roads, such as the one through rugged terrain to Tora Bora, could knit a frayed country together, improve the lives of Afghans in remote villages by giving them access to markets and hospitals and strengthen President Hamid Karzai’s fragile government. Taliban leaders, who regrouped across the border in Pakistan after their fundamentalist Islamic regime was overthrown in 2001, are determined to stop road construction and sow chaos. The former U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, summarized the importance of the roadwork: ‘Where the road ends, the Taliban begins.’ The story of the road to Tora Bora shows how frustrating and perilous it can be to try to build a nation with asphalt and tar. … The international team assigned to the $4 million project has been targeted with roadside bombs, hunted by killers and kidnappers, menaced by mobs and viewed warily by locals who think the team wants to destroy their opium crops. The attacks, threats and missteps have been costly: The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), which is overseeing the project, has scaled it back from 26 to 18 miles. So far, the team has managed only to clear and widen the rocky dirt track. Not a single foot has been paved. UNOPS is struggling to complete the road by a Nov. 1 deadline.”

It’s disappointing that the effort has stalled (underscoring once again how important security is to any development effort), because the motivation for constructing the road is correct. Connectivity not only helps improve the quality of life for most citizens it improves its resilience.

“Across Afghanistan, fewer than 10% of road miles are paved, leaving many villages cut off from markets, hospitals and schools. The isolation is damaging: The typical Afghan dies before age 45; nearly two-thirds of adults can’t read; and more than 160 Afghan babies die for every 1,000 born — the highest infant mortality rate in the world. With vital services beyond the reach of most Afghans, road construction has become a cornerstone of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent $1.5 billion paving Afghan roads since 2002 — $418 million in the current fiscal year.”

Islamic extremists who believe that they know what is best for other Muslims are (in the long run) more interested in controlling them than helping them. Osama bin Laden was welcomed in Afghanistan because he used his fortune to provide welfare services in places where the government couldn’t. But he also made sure that they were dependent on his welfare. He didn’t invest in infrastructure that would help secure a sustainable solution he set up a system of dependency. Hamas follows the same pattern in Palestine. If the Taliban were really interested in the welfare of their fellow Muslims, they would welcome the road. The fact is, since 2002 when the United Nations Office for Project Services, “nearly 100 members of its road crews have been killed by bombs, beheaded by kidnappers, gunned down in drive-by shootings or killed in traffic accidents.”

Shane Middleton, the 30-year-old Irish engineer who planned and wanted to build the road, is the survivor of an IED attack. He is frustrated by the lack of progress because he knows how important the road is for those living in the area.

“The Tora Bora road would serve 250,000 people. Starting outside Jalalabad, the route runs southwest for 5 miles before turning south for 7 miles through desolate terrain. The countryside changes at Kaga, the main market town for the Khogyani district. Six miles south, water gurgles in irrigation channels. Fields of wheat and poppy push close. Okra, eggplant, pomegranates, grapes and apricots are abundant; the hills are rich with marble and talc. Bad roads keep much of it from getting to market.”

Wise reports that “today, Shane Middleton is far from the road he conceived. He works with an Irish aid group in Kenya, patching up schools, building dams and digging wells.” Plans to complete the road are still on the books, but without the full cooperation of the local warlord the security situation is unlikely to change. Like the Taliban, his fortunes are tied to the extent of his control over the region. Unfortunately for the people who need the road, they still live beyond where the road ends.