This is the second in a series of dispatches from Afghanistan by The Diplomat contributor David Axe.
Three Taliban suicide attackers shot their way into a compound belonging to a road construction contractor in eastern Afghanistan's Pakitka Province on March 27, then triggered bombs strapped to their chests. A total of 23 people were reportedly killed.
It's not for no reason the Talibs targeted the road builders. In Paktika, a mountainous and impoverished province bordering Pakistan, new roads promise to boost development and security not only in Paktika, but across Afghanistan and Pakistan.
At Forward Operating Base Sharana, the major US base in Paktika, US Army Maj. Steve Battle from the 101st Airborne Division helps oversee construction projects aiming to expand the province's meagre 150 miles of paved roads. Highway building is a common tactic for security and peacekeeping forces worldwide.
Since the 101st expanded its presence in Paktika last autumn as part of the Barack Obama administration's ‘Afghanistan surge,’ the Americans have paid for the paving of several vital stretches of highway. Other roads are in the process of being paved, including one 45 degree-inclined path up a mountain in central Paktika, and another highway passing into Pakistan via one of four legal border crossings. An additional stretch will connect that border crossing with Afghanistan's nearly complete ‘ring road’ that traces a loose circuit around the entire country.
Battle claims that every mile of paved road in Paktika sends a cascade of improvements through the province and the region. For one, improved roads are safer for coalition troops and Afghan civilians, because it's hard for the Taliban to quickly conceal Improvised Explosive Devices on or around pavement. ‘Where the roads are paved, the IED rate drops like a stone,’ Battle says.
What's more, paved roads allow coalition patrols to move more quickly across the province to respond to security incidents. Today, the 101st deploys troops almost exclusively by helicopter — a complicated and expensive method of travel. Road transport will multiply the coalition's tactical options.
But Battle admits that Taliban fighters crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan might use the roads, too. All the same, Battle expects pavement to favour the more heavily-equipped coalition. ‘It puts the odds in our favour. All they need is a goat trail.’
Perhaps most importantly, new roads will open up commerce in one of Afghanistan's poorest and most isolated provinces. Paktika's roughly 500,000 residents are almost all subsistence farmers, because they lack access to the public and private assistance they need to improve crop yields, and the markets where they might sell any surplus.
Connecting Paktikans to the rest of Afghanistan and to Pakistan could boost incomes for hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the border and reinforce Kabul's legitimacy. Sensing this, for years the Taliban has deliberately targeted road-builders.
A ‘complex attack’ — to borrow Battle's term — halted road construction in central Paktika in 2008. It took two years to re-start it. ‘I don't know the impacts yet’ of the recent attack, Battle says.