The New Silk Road to Nowhere
Image Credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The New Silk Road to Nowhere

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The United States is due to leave Central Asia by the end of 2014. Along with troops, money and equipment, U.S. interests in the region will also be pulled back. As it withdraws, the U.S. State Department is emphasizing a project called “The New Silk Road,” aimed at facilitating Central Asia’s efforts to return to its historic role as the gateway between East and West.

The crux of the initiative is the construction of the nearly $1 billion Central Asia South Asia electrical transmission line or CASA-1000, which stretches 759 miles and connects surplus summer hydroelectricity in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to electricity-starved Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unfortunately, America’s well-intentioned, last-ditch effort to leave a positive legacy in Central Asia attempts to bypass broader regional issues that will ultimately threaten the realization of this project.

It’s important to get CASA-1000 right. The objective is to help create a functioning electricity system for the region that can “help develop a strong economy with good jobs, modern infrastructure, proper social services and inclusive growth.” The CASA-1000 project is also consistent with U.S.-led efforts to help create alternative energy corridors for post-Soviet countries to break their dependence on Russia’s vestigial infrastructural ties.

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One of the most fundamental issues that the project ignores is the dilapidated state of the domestic supply-side infrastructure upon which the CASA-1000 project depends to provide the necessary electricity. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan struggle with regular failures and blackouts due to their inability to invest, maintain and upgrade a Soviet-era system that is on its last legs. As a result, continued domestic failures will threaten the project as a whole because of undependable energy deliveries.

In addition, there is no strategy to secure the infrastructure either now or after the U.S. withdrawal. The CASA-1000 line runs through four of the most unstable countries in the region and the post-2014 security vacuum is likely to make the situation worse. In fact, the Asian Development Bank, which was slated to provide 40 percent of the financing, pulled out of the project, unofficially citing security fears in Afghanistan.

The high-profile nature of the project will make it a target for those who seek to destabilize the region. The ability of local forces to coordinate and secure 759 miles of infrastructure alone will be extremely difficult. On top of everything, the rivalry and a very poor record of cooperation among the regimes of Central Asia may be an even greater risk to the project than non-systemic threats like the Taliban, local warlords and narco-traffickers.

Uzbekistan has come out strongly against CASA-1000. Tashkent associates the project with the planned construction of Kambarata-1 and Rogun dams by upstream Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, respectively. Uzbekistan believes the dams will be used as a political tool to threaten its access to water. Despite signed documents by participants assuring Tashkent that CASA-1000 will only utilize existing surpluses, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has openly linked the project to the construction of the Rogun dam. And indeed it is not hard to believe that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would look beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan and consider producing more energy for the virtually limitless markets of China and India.

Outside of Uzbekistan, the development of Central Asian hydroelectricity is a mutually beneficial nexus of common interests. As many of the region’s countries develop, energy demands for electricity will increase. Russia, which is also a major hydropower, also stands to benefit greatly by connecting to energy thirsty India and China. In fact, Russia has already committed nearly $2 billion to Kyrgyzstan’s Kambarata-1 dam and has shown interest in supporting Tajikistan’s Rogun.

Russia’s interests were confirmed when Russia’s Inter RAO-United Electrical Systems recently signed a 25-year deal with China. Russia has permanent interests in Central Asia and has shown a willingness to take on massive financial and political risk in the region. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan would stand to benefit by plugging into a wider energy market and not only becoming energy exporters, but transit countries as well. Russia’s experience with Central Asian electrical systems and its own vast hydroelectric potential makes Russia the best situated to facilitate Central Asia’s hydroelectric revolution.

However, the U.S. is wary of Russian involvement in CASA-1000 (and the region at large), fearing it will control any arrangement and undermine Washington’s efforts to decouple Central Asia from Moscow’s influence. Nevertheless, by including Russia and expanding the goals of CASA-1000, the project can get closer to resolving many of its broader issues. In addition, Russia will be a more responsible actor within the framework of a CASA-1000 agreement than it would be bilaterally. If the U.S. continues to purposefully limit the scope of CASA-1000, the project risks becoming isolated instead of being a critical link in a larger network.

The project is full of politicized, but solvable problems. The U.S. is pursuing a tactical success at the risk of strategic failure. Unfortunately, the current state of the project provides little encouragement as “industry insiders speaking privately tend to roll their eyes when they discuss CASA-1000.” The U.S. and its partners are ready to invest nearly $1 billion into the construction of an unprotected electric line with a vulnerable supply whose economic viability will depend on infrastructure that is 20 or 30 years old in a politically unstable region.

Russia might be the only country willing to invest the necessary financial, security and political resources for the long term. After the recent collapse of “the Reset,” CASA-1000 and the New Silk Road project can serve as a conduit for mutually beneficial cooperation between the U.S., Central Asia and Russia. Coordinating the various regional interests can help stabilize and develop the region. Otherwise, the U.S. will shift unrealistic burdens and expectations on countries and institutions that do not have the capacity, training or resources to guarantee the project’s long-term success.

Eugene Imas is the Program and Outreach Officer at Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies, with postgraduate qualifications from the same Center. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan from 2006-2008. The views expressed here are his own.

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