Highways to hell

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PhD student Tamar Gomez has been analysing US war logs and digital maps to understand the surprising effects of road building in war-torn Iraq on levels of violence against civilians in the years 2003 to 2016

We assume that any investment in the infrastructure of a war-torn country will bring benefits. Development creates an economic boost, and this helps bring stability to turbulent areas – or so the theory goes.

But it wasn’t until I chatted to friends over a beer that I began to wonder otherwise. They had just returned from Afghanistan, and told me that Kabul was more peaceful in winter time, when snow made roads impassable and the city became less violent.

I was intrigued. But getting hold of reliable historical information from Afghanistan in order to investigate was difficult. I turned to Iraq – which sadly has experienced years of violence, with conflict carefully logged by US military and NGOs.

Why roads in particular, and what is the link between economic development and violence?

Iraq’s economy, said US Lt General Peter Chiarelli, commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq back in 2006, was “the lynchpin of a peaceful Iraq”. Most Iraqis, he said wanted a better life. “Disillusionment, poverty and hopelessness are the breeding grounds for violence.” And the US has spent billions of dollars in Iraq to develop infrastructure and invest in the nation’s road network, but little research to date has focused on the impact of road improvement on levels of violence.

What I discovered was utterly counter-intuitive: direct US investment in Iraq’s roads across the country actually led to an increase in the number of attacks. And this raises the questions: why roads in particular, and what is the link between economic development and violence?

US investment in Iraq

In the years following 2003, when US forces invaded and removed Saddam Hussein, Iraq experienced periods of extreme violence as state and military collapsed. During the occupation, sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims escalated, and Al Qaeda’s presence grew. From 2003 to 2007, some 1,500 civilians were killed every month.

Nearly eight years after Saddam was removed, the US withdrew all troops in 2014 having peaked at around 170,000 during the height of the occupation. But as sectarian violence between the Shia-led government and Sunni insurgency escalated from 2011 to 2014, the influence of Islamic State grew, and US troops returned.

Amid this violence, our main constraint has been to gain a consistent source of information: we’ve used reliable US military data of attacks from 2003 to 2011 and from their return in 2014, and also accurate records kept by the University of Maryland and NGOs on the ground. We’ve collected information detailing the location, timing, weapon, perpetrator and target of the attack.

Using digitalised road maps, we’ve been able to plot road construction in Iraq between 2003 and 2016 – we’ve aimed to look at how much was invested and how much was actually built.

More roads have actually led to more political attacks – our data analysis has revealed this to be a cause rather than a correlation

After the 2003 invasion and subsequent breakdown, Iraqi transport was in a dire state. From 2003 to 2012, US investment in Iraqi infrastructure reached nearly $11.9 billion, and the length of the road network grew by 21 per cent between 2002 and 2011.

Far from being a stabilising force, more roads have actually led to more political attacks – our data analysis has revealed this to be a cause rather than a correlation. This appears to back up analyses from the war in Afghanistan which shows 86 per cent of violence occurred near a road. What is going on?

Roads becoming targets

One theory is the roads themselves – brand new and perceived to be the creation of an occupying force – become obvious targets. And troops travelling along the main roads are also more vulnerable to roadblocks and ambushes. Another possible cause is that better transport allows insurgents to move around the country more freely. Iraq is a nation of desert in the south west, mountains in the north east and marshes in the south. New routes, which pass from north to south through Baghdad and west towards the border with Jordan, allow better access to fuel and open up the country to vehicles.

Interestingly, we didn’t find any correlation between levels of investment per kilometre of road and levels of violence. This could be due to corruption – to funds for large projects potentially being syphoned off. Iraq’s construction sector is notoriously corrupt: some 40 per cent of reconstruction projects audited by the US authorities were fraught with waste, fraud and malpractice.

Future investment

I don’t want the main takeaway from this research to be a decision not to invest in the development of war-riven countries. We hope this analysis might shed light on the wider dynamics of development and conflict. But perhaps development projects should be reassessed: research shows they must be well tailored and they must be small. Critical analysis shows development projects, as opposed to road building, are most successful at reducing violence when they are small – below $500,000 – and occur amid a strong military presence aided by professional expertise.

I hope further research from our data could shed light on the levels of corruption and underline the need for investors to find well-informed partners on the ground.

This article draws on findings from the paper "Highways to Hell are Paved with Good Intentions: Road Building and Violence in Iraq" by Tamar Gomez, a doctoral student at Imperial College London.

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Tamar Gomez

About Tamar Gomez

PhD Student
Tamar Gomez is a PhD candidate in Economics at Imperial College Business School since September 2015. Her research focuses on network theory, game theory and conflicts. She is interested in understanding the effect of both physical and virtual networks on violence and terrorism. Her PhD is supervised by Dr Mirabelle Muuls of the Grantham Institute and the Imperial College Business School.