The Afghan Silk Route: A Pipe Dream?

Afghanistan, situated in the heart of Asia, has for centuries been pivotal to international transport and trade. The argument is made today that for Afghanistan to prosper, it has to reinvent itself as the hub of a modern day “Silk Route” connecting Europe, the Middle East, India and East Asia. The future of Afghanistan, once the military campaign draws to a close, depends on its ability to foster economic success independently.

The Silk Route strategy stems from a paper prepared by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in May 2010 entitled “The Key to Success in Afghanistan” (PDF). The study is supposed to have received major input from the United States Central Command which was previously overseen by General David Petraeus before he took over from General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan last June. Petraeus is quoted as agreeing that “Afghanistan can regain economic vitality and thrive” as a regional transport hub.

The authors, S. Frederick Starr and Andrew C. Kuchins make a compelling case for refocusing ISAF’s mission to “removing the impediments to continental transport and trade across Afghanistan’s territory.” Afghanistan, they believe, could become “a natural hub and transit point for roads, railroads, pipelines, and electric lines” across Asia.

The notion that it is possible to pursue an economic strategy in Afghanistan along with the military effort, “in such a way that the two are mutually reinforcing,” is appealing. It entails more than job creation and proper government; two objectives so far hampered by the simultaneous influx of Western forces and continued drone attacks which leave the population increasingly skeptical about NATO’s ability to convert a deeply unpopular and corrupt regime into a unified, centralized state for the first time in the country’s history.

Fortunately, establishing Afghanistan as a transport hob is “not a herculean task waiting to be designed and launched from scratch. Many international financial institutions and nations have already been building and refurbishing the roads, pipelines, airports, railroads, and seaports that connect these regions with one another.” Overland commerce between China and Europe could soon be blossoming as railroads and highways are opened across the Caucasus and Central Asia. Similar development has yet to occur between Europe, India and Southeast Asia however. “Trucks and trains cannot travel from Almaty or Tashkent to Islamabad, let alone New Delhi.” Different infrastructure projects are undertaken by different international sponsors but what’s lacking is coordination. “Afghanistan,” notes the paper, “remains the cork in the bottle.”

“The most powerful drivers of the expansion of transcontinental Eurasian trade in the coming years will be the rapid growth of the Indian and Chinese economies.” The bulk of Chinese and Indian exports today are shipped by sea but the authors expect that their growth will increase demand for road and rail routes over land. “Afghanistan and its neighboring Central Asian countries stand to benefit immensely from this trade through the collection of tariffs and through the growing role of their own transit-related industries.”

Two obstacles stand to prevent Afghanistan’s ascendance as a Central Asian transport hub: first, the absence of security and second, its poor infrastructure. In spite of noble construction efforts, on the whole, “Afghanistan has been off the Eurasian transportation grid for centuries and remains so today.” According to the authors, neither obstacle is insurmountable however.

Although sustained combat in Afghanistan and surrounding regions inhibits economic activity and dampens private and public investment alike, “local populations have shown themselves ready to prioritize commerce over political violence.” The paper cites the continuing flow of Pakistani trucks ferrying NATO supplies from Karachi to Afghanistan through the epicenter of the Pashtun insurgency as proof that commercial activity can flourish amid instability. The evidence appears slim but that shouldn’t wholly discredit the assertion. Afghans, like all people, will seek to capitalize on opportunities when they see them, war or no war.

The state of the country’s infrastructure is dire but not hopeless. Though underdeveloped, it “can support greatly increased levels of trade.” Government bureaucracy and corruption are in fact greater problems. Excessive border duties and red tape are frustrating economic activity more than roadside bombs and neglected highways ever could and nearly 1,000 continental truck drivers from various countries who haul their goods across Afghanistan agree. 90 percent of them point to bureaucracy at the borders as the greatest impediment to trade.

“The standardization and professionalization of customs administration is essential to unlocking Eurasia’s trade potential” therefore; quite a challenge indeed if one considers rather more developed regions of the world like Latin America and the Middle East where similar predicaments obstruct the movement of goods and people still.

The United States and their allies should start pursuing the Silk Route strategy in Afghanistan with three concrete policies to be enacted immediately.

  • Promoting more efficient road transit and trade;
  • Building an Afghan rail system connected to those of bordering countries and regions;
  • Developing Afghanistan’s potential as an energy corridor sending Turkmen oil and gas to Pakistan and India and Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbek electricity to Pakistan.

David Ignatius, writing for The Washington Post, cites Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister, who liked to compare the Silk Route scenario with the development of the American frontier. “What secured our lawless Wild West frontier was the transcontinental railroad in 1869,” notes Ignatius. “With trade and economic growth came stability.” Thomas Barnett has made a similar argument for years.

Integrating Afghanistan successfully in a trans-Asian trade network will depend heavily on the nearby interested powers: particularly China and India and Russia to a lesser degree. The former are already embedded with billions of dollars in aid and investment flowing into the country. Fareed Zakaria urged officials to consider that India matters in December of last year already. He noted that as the Taliban were forced out of power, “the cuisine, movies, and money that flowed into the country were, naturally, Indian.” With $1,2 billion in aid, India is the world’s fifth contributor to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, investing much more than China is.

Both great powers have good reasons to be actively engaged in the country. India is mostly concerned about what it stands to lose should Afghanistan succumb to near anarchy once again: Pakistan might well collapse entirely while terrorism is likely to cross the border into India which already struggles with internal violence on an almost daily basis.

As for China, according to Robert Kaplan, writing in The New York Times last October, it has its eyes on some of the world’s last untapped deposits of copper, iron, gold, uranium and precious gems, and is willing to take big risks to secure them.

By exploiting Afghanistan’s metal and mineral reserves, China can provide thousands of Afghans with jobs, thus generating tax revenues to help stabilize a tottering Kabul government. Just as America has a vision of a modestly stable Afghanistan that will no longer be a haven for extremists, China has a vision of Afghanistan as a secure conduit for roads and energy pipelines that will bring natural resources from the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

In short, India’s objective is first and foremost to keep the dangers of the Afghan insurgency at bay while China wants to move resources out in order to secure its own economic growth. That same concern is making it promote free trade in Southeast Asia and has it scrambling for natural riches through Africa and the rest of Central Asia.

Neither has a definitive strategy. They are willing to invest billions and try different means, whether it means negotiating with a regime they might otherwise abhor or inadvertently fostering democratization in far reaches of the globe. Yet no matter India’s concerns and China’s designs, neither is willing to sacrifice its own interests, if only in part, or risk the lives of thousands of their own, like the Americans, to bring about a stable Afghan state that would, in the long run, benefit them immensely. If Afghanistan is to have a future of its own — and this Starr and Kuchins know only too well — it must be able to rely on a prolonged military commitment on the part of the United States.