Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Highways to hell: road-building in Iraq has increased the violence

Far from promoting peace and economic development, infrastructure investment programmes in conflict zones can have the opposite effect. This column reports evidence that the billion dollar US road-building programme in Iraq has led to more not less violence.

In a nutshell

One reason that US road-building programme in Iraq has led to more violence could be that during the conflict, reconstructed or newly developed roads have become privileged targets for insurgents.

Another potential reason is that newly built roads may have increased the mobility of insurgents and thus the number and efficiency of attacks.

Spending on roads may also have been subject to the rampant corruption plaguing Iraq, diverting the expected positive effects.

Between 2003 and 2013, over the course of the war in Iraq, the United States invested $11.9 billion in infrastructure development programmes. The underlying rationale, shared and advocated by international organisations, was that developing infrastructure would further trade, economic growth and overall wellbeing, which would, in turn, contribute to reducing violence in war-torn regions.

This idea is illustrated by the following statement made in 2006 by General Peter Chiarelli, Commander of the Multinational Corps in Iraq: ‘Disillusionment, poverty and hopelessness are the breeding grounds for violence.’

The results of such investment programmes have been shown to be inconclusive in previous studies. My study goes a step further and shows that, contrary to the prevalent postulate, infrastructure development programmes can have a direct increasing effect on violence.

To unearth unaccounted-for mechanisms tampering with the bonanza of infrastructure development, my study focuses on an appropriate context: road-building across Iraq. This choice is appealing for several reasons.

First, within infrastructure development, transport infrastructure and more precisely road-building is ranked high as it is often tasked with winning over local populations and furthering political stabilisation. As a result, in Iraq, $1.31 billion was allocated to transport and communications overall.

Second, looking at transport infrastructures makes it possible to track the physical development of the Iraqi road network using digitalised maps. This novel dataset makes it possible to conduct a district-level road-network appraisal across the period. These geographical data are coupled with satellite nightlight data to assess the change in economic activity.

Third, by focusing on the Iraqi insurgency, which spanned from 2003, with the invasion of US troops, up to 2016, my study thoroughly captures several periods of violence, from the 2006-07 sectarian insurgency to the rise of ISIS in 2012-13. Indeed, the presence of the coalition in Iraq has fostered a detailed data collection process on both violent events and infrastructure spending, and these have been made available with recent archival declassification.

Across the period, there is evidence to support the idea that road-building has an increasing effect on violence. This effect is driven by large roads and highways, and the mediating effect of economic development cannot be asserted as there is a strong correlation between violence and higher GDP.

In other words, the political and military mechanisms linked to road-building overpower the wished-for economic effects. This result raises questions about the economic assumptions related to infrastructure development as well as potentially identifying other mechanisms at play linked to the field and military strategy.

There are at least two potential explanations. The first is that during the conflict, reconstructed or newly developed roads have become privileged targets for insurgents. Controlling road networks through road-blocks, ambushes and roadside attacks have become a widespread tactic of guerrilla warfare.

In a geographical study of Wikileaks’ Afghan war logs, 85.9% of insurgent violence was found to take place near a road, but that the ’ring road’ linking major Afghan cities was a disproportionately important target for attacks involving IEDs (‘improvised explosive devices’).

The second potential explanation is that newly built roads may have increased the mobility of insurgent groups and thus the numbers and efficiency of their attacks. Roads are a primary military concern for military operations as they are an unavoidable means of troop mobility and military supply.

A study written as early as 1862 developed this theme on the importance of the road network for offensive and defensive strategy: ’It has also been maintained that, could one create a country expressly to be a good theatre to war, converging roads would be avoided, because they facilitate invasion’.

To disentangle these two factors, I run my analysis on differentiated types of violence, when feasible. In this context, the effect is particularly strong for Direct Fire attacks. In other words, it appears that roads act primarily as force multipliers and enablers for insurgency – and this is the main mechanism driving increase in violence.

Finally, road spending has been subject to the rampant corruption plaguing Iraq, diverting the most expected positive effects of these investments. The lack of available data makes it difficult to identify corruption practices, but I try to assess corruption by comparing the relationship in Shia and Sunni districts. There seems to be evidence of a favouritism mechanism directed towards Shia districts as opposed to particularly Sunni districts.

My results on the effects of road-building are broadly in line with research in political science, which has been studying qualitatively the link between state power and road network. They go against the ‘ipse dixit’ promoted by international organisations and argue for more informed, local-level development spending programmes in countries in conflict.





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