Best Defense

Fred Starr: Keep on trucking, Afghanistan

For a long time I’ve thought that the key to economic reconstruction in Afghanistan would be restoring its traditional role of carrying goods from South Asia (full of nice cheap consumer goods) to Central Asia (now featuring oil and gas revenues). To do this, the “ring road” that connects the country’s major cities and the ...


For a long time I’ve thought that the key to economic reconstruction in Afghanistan would be restoring its traditional role of carrying goods from South Asia (full of nice cheap consumer goods) to Central Asia (now featuring oil and gas revenues). To do this, the “ring road” that connects the country’s major cities and the spur roads to the borders need to be made relatively safe from bandits, Talibani, and thieving officials. But every time I’ve raised this, I’ve been greeted with eye-rolling and such.

So I was pleased to see a genuine Central Asian expert,  S. Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins, make a similar, more considered proposal:

Both General Mc Chrystal and President Obama have affirmed the need for “economic” and “governance” measures in Afghanistan.  They’re right, of course. Without them the U.S.’s stated goals — to destroy Al Queda and cripple the Taliban-remain purely negative and not compelling to most Afghans, to the countries neighboring Afghanistan, and even to our own NATO allies. But what are these “economic” and “governance” measures? Neither Mc Chrystal nor Obama has spelled these out. It’s time to do so.

To succeed, any such measures must meet four criteria. First, they must directly and positively affect the lives of Afghans, Pakistanis, and people in those Central Asian states that have become key to this region-wide project. If ordinary people across the region are convinced that they will benefit from America’s effort they will support it. If not, they will stand aside.  Second, the economic measures must leave the Afghan government with an income stream. Today the U.S. is paying the salaries of all Afghan soldiers and civil servants. This can’t go on forever. Third, it must be possible to pursue the economic measures simultaneously with the military effort, and in a way that enhances the military campaign. And, fourth, these initiatives must work fast, and begin to show results within the next 18-24 months.

Since 2001 the U.S. and other countries have done much good in Afghanistan, far more than is generally known. Progress in major health indicators and education are only part of an impressive record. But late in 2009 these do not suffice. To meet our four criteria a more powerful engine is needed.

Fortunately, such a force exists. The U.S. should immediately focus its energies on opening continental transport and trade across Afghanistan and the region. This will immediately open large markets to Afghan and Pakistani producers in scores of legal areas. Ordinary Afghans will be able to get their goods to markets now closed to them. The yield on truck tariffs will provide a steady income for the government in Kabul. Such trade can start immediately, for it involves removing bureaucratic impediments at borders, not vast infrastructure projects.

Some argue that this cannot happen until the stability situation improves. They may be confusing cause and effect. If only a few trucks traverse a road it is easy for bandits to interdict them. If hundreds of trucks do so, some may still be hit. But most will bore their way through. Soon locals will be providing the truckers with food, gas, storage, and repair services, as well as good for shipment. As this happens, the local population gains an interest in keeping the road open.

But can this really happen quickly? The Asian Development Bank has shown convincingly that the goods and truckers are there, waiting for a green flag. These are not just local haulers but transcontinental shippers running from Hamburg to Hanoi, Damascus to Delhi, the Urals to Hydarabad. Surveys show that the truckers themselves see the main impediments not as bad roads or the absence of physical security.  These are tough guys, used to getting through under the worst conditions. But they are stopped dead by corrupt and inefficient practices at borders, especially in Afghanistan. Remove these and the dam will break, releasing a vast force of trade that existed across Eurasia for 2,500 years but which has been blocked in recent centuries. The International Union of Roads and Transport in Geneva reports that large numbers of its members are poised to move, once the impediments are removed. And since the key to removing these impediments at borders is to improve governance and remove corruption at these points, the project provides a perfect laboratory for improving governance elsewhere in Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army’s network for delivering supplies to our forces in Afghanistan provides a skeleton for the emerging network of routes crossing Afghanistan. The U.S. needs only to open the same routes to civilian traffic to get the ball rolling. Soon truckers will want to cross Pakistan as well, passing on into India and beyond. Is this a fantasy?

In spite of the Pakistan-India conflict over Kashmir, some $3 billion of goods cross the India-Pakistan land border each year legally, and another $15 billion illegally. Both are products like refrigerators and stoves, not narcotics. Given this enormous economic pressure, it is quite conceivable that Indians and Pakistani could choose to open selective routes, even as they continue to spar over Kashmir.

The biggest surge in Afghanistan will fail if it is not intimately linked with an economic program, and one that pushes Kabul to improve governance. By releasing the engine of continental trade, the U.S. can achieve this. Such a project is not against anyone, and will enable the U.S. to engage constructively with every power in Eurasia, including China, India, Pakistan, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and even Iran, for which participation in such trade could be an important carrot. 

However, Washington has yet to embrace this as a top strategic priority, let alone to organize its mission in Afghanistan and the region in such a way as to achieve it. This last is particularly important, for it requires a degree of civil-military coordination that has not existed in the U.S.’s Afghan effort since 2005. The good news is that it is not yet too late to do this.  Once such a strategy and tactics are in place, the U.S. will have unleashed a force that generated wealth across Eurasia, and especially in Afghanistan and its neighbors, over several millennia. It’s time to act.

To this, I would add that a little help from the U.S. military could go a long way here. Initially, at least, I would have Afghan forces organize large convoys of perhaps 200 to 300 trucks. Also, remove most of the checkpoints and have American troops over-watching those that remains. Meanwhile, other American forces could do some route clearing. Then assign a few Strykers to every convoy and have Apaches on tap in case there is trouble. Finally, perhaps organize caravanserais every 40 miles or for overnight stays, meals, and maintenance, and also to drop off broken-down trucks. (And hire locals to work at those places, giving them a huge incentive to cooperate against local Talibani.)

Bonus fact: I just learned also that Professor Starr is a world-class jazz clarinetist.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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