About the Author: Alison Blosser is a State Department Representative/Political Officer with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Asadabad, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. Alison's previous post:Updates From Afghanistan.
Unity of effort in Kunar's central and remote Korengal Valley, host to some of the province's most intense insurgent activity, has recently enabled fruitful negotiations to concentrate more on development and employment than fighting. Although insurgents continue to sporadically threaten local villages and Coalition outposts throughout the Korengal, Kunar government's provincial and district leadership, the Provincial Reconstruction Team, soldiers of the "Battle" Company (2d/503d, 173rd Airborne Division), and key village elders have partnered to inaugurate a road construction project that will eventually link the remote valley to main provincial paved roads.
Roads in Kunar are not only instruments of transportation, but avenues to economic opportunity that give people choices beyond picking up a weapon. Since the Jalalabad-to-Asmar road was paved along the west side of the Kunar River, running nearly the whole valley from north to south, over 30 petrol/diesel stations have popped up where businesses did not exist. A pink hotel stands along this stretch. Numerous open markets line the villages along this main thoroughfare, and money is changing hands. A similar phenomenon is happening heading west from Asadabad along the 32-km Pech Valley Road, which also follows a river. The preparation and paving of the Pech Road was a PRT project, and now other donors including USAID and the Army Corps of Engineers / Afghanistan Engineer District are funding connectors and extensions that will eventually enable Kunar to link into a larger network through Laghman and Nuristan provinces. The ability to traverse these mountainous – craggy places on proper roadways – is unprecedented in this region of Afghanistan. Now the PRT is turning to more challenging pockets of Kunar.
The Korengal project is actually comprised of two roads. One will originate in Chowkay district's Deywagal Valley south of Asadabad, coming off the Jalalabad-Asadabad road. As that road cuts northwest, a similar finger will drop south off the Pech Valley Road from Kandigal Village through the Korengal, meeting the Chowkay road in central Kunar. The entire road will link populations that currently walk or donkey-ride for over six hours to reach a main road, enabling access to clinics, schools, district government centers, and markets.
The Provincial Governor inaugurated the project with a ground-breaking ceremony at the starting point for construction, a full 20-km north of Korengali lands. The Governor has continued to engage Korengal's residents by linking them with neighboring tribes who may be willing to help provide an umbrella of security in the valley. Connection to the local communities, particular the traditional elders of those villages, has been critical. Repeated meetings have become confidence building exercises on both sides. Elders give guarantees of their desire for the road and promise to participate in the project's security, and the District Government and PRT commit to longer-term development and partnership with traditional leadership. Operational military units work with the Korengal shura (council of tribal elders) on security matters, and the PRT helps the shura to develop a local labor plan for the project.
Unity of effort combines military action to go after the most hard-line fighters while the PRT continues to negotiate with those who want security and development. The process is public, transparent, and requires infinite patience on all sides. Setbacks include threats to workers, concern by tribal leaders about how far the road may penetrate into the valley, and land disputes over the route. Through it all, the traditional consensus-building mechanism of the shura is the instrument of mediation.
The road project may go in fits and starts with occasional stalling due to pervasive insurgent threats to valley residents. However, every kilometer widened and paved is a testament to rural people's commitment to joining the social contract, working with their government, and legitimately expecting delivery of basic services.
As commerce increases for local communities, so does the opportunity cost for tolerating violence and intimidation by spoilers. Roads anchor and organize development within the security bubble that extends to either side of the pavement. As the government has improved freedom of movement, it can demonstrate its presence by deploying community police and conducting regular patrols. Basic health posts can be linked to more sophisticate combined health service centers, which feed into the central provincial hospital. Provincial officials such as the Director of Education can travel more easily to check on teachers and identify existing open-air schools for building construction. Although roads are not the panacea to creating stability, in the "ink-blot" approach to counter-insurgency, they are a critical tool.