The New Silk Road?
Image Credit: US Army Corps of Engineers

The New Silk Road?

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The United States has launched a new strategy for Afghanistan’s economic development, aimed at making the war-torn country a hub of commerce rather than of religious extremism and strife. The plan is visionary, but turning it into reality will require political will that it’s not clear the United States, or Afghanistan’s neighbors, are willing to show.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the new plan, called the New Silk Road Initiative, last month. In the U.S. vision, she said: “Turkmen gas fields could help meet both Pakistan’s and India’s growing energy needs and provide significant transit revenues for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tajik cotton could be turned into Indian linens. Furniture and fruit from Afghanistan could find its way to the markets of Astana or Mumbai and beyond.”

The metaphor of a “New Silk Road” has become a trope of Central Asia policy ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union gave these countries their independence, and the opportunities to forge their own foreign and trade policies. But this particular vision originated with S. Frederick Starr, a Washington-based scholar of the region and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. The plan was picked up by officers at U.S. Central Command, led then by Gen. David Petraeus, who saw it as a way to build long-term stability in Afghanistan. The plan also dovetails nicely with a broader U.S. project to wean these countries away from their economic and political ties to Russia. The United States has already sponsored projects to tie the electricity networks in Central Asia to those in South Asia, and in a bureaucratic but pointed move, reorganized the regional bureaus in the State Department so that Central Asia was grouped with South Asia, rather than with Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

The vision is ambitious, but what can the United States do to bring it about? So far, the plan has been light on specifics, but State Department officials have said that it will partially entail new infrastructure like highways, railroads, electricity networks and pipelines – the so-called “hardware” portion of the plan – and partly reducing legal barriers to trade, by getting the countries surrounding Afghanistan to reduce customs duties and ease onerous border crossings, the “software.”

But Starr cautioned that the State Department’s version of the plan, as he saw it so far, needed to focus more closely on the “software” rather than hardware and to develop a plan for short-, medium- and long-term projects. He proposed starting with relatively easy to implement but high-profile projects like truck convoys along a few key corridors. “Skeptics abound,” he said. “We must prove to them that the U.S. can deliver tangible results that positively affect peoples’ lives, and do so in the short term.”

In their public statements on the plan, U.S. officials have cited a handful of current or potential projects that the New Silk Road would build on, including an Afghanistan-Pakistan free trade agreement, a U.S. government sponsored project to transmit electricity from hydropower plants in Central Asia to Afghanistan, and a pipeline that would ship natural gas from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. In total, the U.S. government has identified 30 to 40 infrastructure projects that it sees as potential elements of the New Silk Road.

But those are hardly firm foundations on which to build Afghanistan’s economic future. The Turkmenistan-India pipeline, known as TAPI, along with similar proposals, have been discussed for years, but have never reached fruition. That’s in part because of political difficulties between India and Pakistan, but also in part because no large company with the capacity to build such a pipeline wants to take the risk of operating in Afghanistan for the next several decades it would take to make the pipeline profitable. With the U.S. starting to withdraw from Afghanistan, that problem will only become more intimidating.

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