While Americans are debating a Hyperloop, electric scooters, and ride-hailing services, some people are still just trying to access basic road infrastructure. Take Kunar, Afghanistan: located on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Kunar is a stronghold for the Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Afghan branch of ISIS. Despite the ongoing violence in Kunar, the government has been unable to advance its counter-terrorism agenda in the region due to the poorly connected and managed road network. According to former US commander Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, “Wherever the road ends, that’s where the Taliban starts” (1).
Since the official ‘end’ of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Afghan government has been trying to rehabilitate and expand its Soviet-era road infrastructure after decades of war and neglect. According to a 2016 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense have spent $2.8 billion since 2002 on construction and repair of the country’s road infrastructure (2). Starting during the Obama era, however, the US shifted from funding road maintenance projects to relying on pre-allocated money to build new roads. President Trump has gone a step further, expressing his intent to slash $3 billion in foreign aid (3). In response to these losses, the Afghan government cut more than half of its infrastructure spending in 2018. The overall development budget, meanwhile, was reduced by 42 percent (4).
A few examples of the eclectic private vehicle fleet on the roads of Afghanistan. Cars are typically old, can have a steering wheel on either side, and are subject to little safety regulation (photo credit – Heyne Kim).
Although Afghanistan saw an average growth rate of 7 percent in GDP between 2007-2016, and has become more responsible in government spending, the country still relies on international donors. For example, in the 2018 budget, domestic revenue accounted for only 47 percent of the total, compared to 52 percent from foreign aid (4).
Today, China has in many ways taken up the role previously held by the US, investing $62 billion in Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). A part of China’s greater Road and Belt initiative, the CPEC project aims to build a roughly 2,000-mile road network across Pakistan, all the way to the Port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea (5). CPEC also features a real-time monitoring and 24-hour surveillance system in urban areas, as well as explosive detectors and scanners for major roads, case-prone areas, and crowded places (6). China’s pilot program will be launched in Peshawar, a critical Taliban stronghold, and expanded overtime to other important political and economic hubs. The political motivations behind, and long-term implications of, these investments are complicated, but, currently, CPEC may be Pakistan’s best option for combatting terrorism.
Aside from the security concerns of the Taliban’s resurgence and China’s growing presence, there are other reasons why the US needs to maintain its commitment to improving infrastructure in Afghanistan. Infrastructure has been identified as a top government priority to ensure long-term economic growth and the eradication of poverty in Afghanistan, where agriculture produces 24.5 percent of the GDP and employs nearly 60 percent of the population. The country also contains 1.3 million hectares of valuable forestland and mineral resources estimated to be worth at least $1 trillion (7). Due to the lack of access, though, these resources are currently underutilized and subject to illegal exploitation by terrorist groups. Moreover, Afghanistan contains five major river basins and 36 sub-basins, which are critical to the larger region’s fragile freshwater management system (8). As such, having good relations with Afghanistan is key to promoting US-Central Asia relations more broadly.
Of course, foreign aid alone cannot solve Afghanistan’s infrastructure crisis; real change must come from within. Corruption has caused an estimated $5 billion in losses every year, while a lack of domestic traffic regulation has led to the proliferation of illegal drivers, overweight trucks, and improvised explosive devices, all of which contributes to wear and tear on the roads (2,4). Meanwhile, use of local contractors for road maintenance has been shown to help avert insurgent attacks. As such, addressing corruption and poor governance, while also increasing the share of local resources in road projects, will help ensure safety while also improving the local economy and allowing greater public participation in the planning process.
An efficient, safe, and accessible road network is seen as a matter of life or death today in Afghanistan, just as it was at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s here at home. As such, continued US investment in Afghanistan’s road infrastructure is critical for combatting terrorism, improving US relations in the region, and protecting Afghan life and property. However, efforts must be made from the Afghan side as well, like two horses pulling a cart side by side. Peace and prosperity in Afghanistan is long overdue, and a better road network is one of the first steps to get there.
- Sieff, K. 2014. After billions in US investment, Afghan roads are falling apart. The Washington Post. 30 Jan. 2014. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/after-billions-in-us-investment-afghan-roads-are-falling-apart/2014/01/30/9bd07764-7986-11e3-b1c5-739e63e9c9a7_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.29ba8ab84656>
- SIGAR. 2016. Afghanistan’s Road Infrastructure: Sustainment Challenges and Lack of Repairs Put U.S. Investment at Risk. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Audit Report 17-11. Oct. 2016. <https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/audits/SIGAR-17-11-AR.pdf>
- Ferris, S. 2018. Trump administration to attempt to kill $3B in foreign aid. POLITICO. 17 Aug. 2018. <https://www.politico.com/story/2018/08/17/white-house-cut-foreign-aid-money-743481>
- IWA. 2017. The Game of Numbers: Analysis of the National Budget 2018. Integrity Watch Afghanistan. Dec. 2017. <https://iwaweb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/IWA__National-Budget__English_6.pdf>
- Rafiq, A. 2017. China’s $62 Billion Bet on Pakistan. Foreign Affairs Letter from Gwadar. 24 Oct. 2017. <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-10-24/chinas-62-billion-bet-pakistan>
- Bilal, S.H. 2017. How China and Pakistan are Combating Terrorism. The Asia Dialogue Belt and Road Initiative. 15 Nov. 2017. <https://theasiadialogue.com/2017/11/15/how-china-and-pakistan-are-combating-terrorism/>
- Schewe, E. 2017. War Has Made Afghanistan’s $1 Trillion in Minerals Worthless. JSTOR Daily. 20 Nov. 2017. <https://daily.jstor.org/war-has-made-afghanistans-1-trillion-in-minerals-worthless/>
- Huwaida, M.R. 2018. Afghanistan Water Resources: The Cause of Conflicts with Neighboring Countries. Daily Outlook Afghanistan. 23 May 2018. <http://outlookafghanistan.net/editorialdetail.php?post_id=20987>
About the author: Heyne J. Kim is a candidate for the Master of City and Regional Planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to joining the program, she worked as a Coordinator for International Relations in southeastern Japan, promoting multiculturalism to Japanese citizens and foreign residents (edited by Leah Campbell).
Featured Image: A small town in Kunar, a politically volatile region in Afghanistan mentioned in the opening paragraph.