The New Silk Road?

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The New Silk Road?

The United States hopes that a combination of trade and infrastructure can help steer Afghanistan away from unrest – and Russia.

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.

And the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade agreement was brokered by Richard Holbrooke, formerly President Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But since Holbrooke’s death, the agreement has remained only a piece of paper, and there’s skepticism over whether it will ever be implemented.

One potential pitfall that will have to be overcome is the cost of infrastructure projects. “Unless the job is funded, it ain’t going to happen,” says Juan Miranda, Director General of the Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which is a supporter of the project and has been carrying out a related infrastructure project, the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation, for several years. “So we have to think about that and it will be a challenge.”

But the United States, mindful of a domestic political environment opposed to government spending, has emphasized that it doesn’t plan to spend a lot of money on the project. “With governments all around the world facing economic challenges, we have to focus on ways to make this work with limited government support.  So, for the ‘New Silk Road’ vision to realize its potential, it’s critical that the Afghan government and its neighbors take ownership of the effort,” said Robert Hormats, Undersecretary of State for economic, energy and agricultural affairs, in a recent speech.

But it’s also not clear that Afghanistan’s neighbors will be interested. George Gavrilis, an expert on international borders and Central Asia at the Washington, D.C., think tank The Hollings Center, said that Central Asia is particularly averse to regional cooperation. He argues that Pakistan and Tajikistan benefit from Afghanistan’s instability by promoting the pro-Pakistan Taliban and getting international aid, respectively. Turkmenistan is avowedly neutral, eschewing most international and regional organizations, and Uzbekistan barely less so: Last month, it just reopened the country’s main border crossing with Kyrgyzstan after 18 months of political disagreements. Those sorts of disputes are common in the region, and the economic links on some of the more sensitive borders that the New Silk Road would open can be closed quickly due to political conflicts. “I love the idea, but I just don’t see how it can be implemented,” Gavrilis says.

But with the United States leaving Afghanistan starting in two years, it wants to try to reassure Afghanistan and its neighbors that it isn’t abandoning them. And with fewer soldiers and resources, this might be its best bet. Sham Bathija, senior economic adviser to President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, speaking at a recent conference in Washington on the strategy, acknowledged that the plan wouldn’t be easy to implement. “We have continued insecurity and instability in Afghanistan,” he said. “Yet we have no choice but to forge ahead.”