Most analysts seem to agree that the antiquity-era trade route is never coming back, so why is it America's new favorite idea for Central Asia?
Afghan President Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Clinton meet in Washington / Reuters
When foreign ministers from Afghanistan, its neighbors, and several European countries meet today in Istanbul, U.S. diplomats will be pushing them to sign on to an ambitious plan for the future of Central Asia. The "New Silk Road," as the State Department is calling their strategy, would link the infrastructure -- roads, railways, power lines -- of the 'Stans of post-Soviet Central Asia southward through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. At the same time, they would work with the governments to reduce legal and bureaucratic impediments to trade, like corrupt border crossings.
The hope is that this would produce a flowering of East-West overland trade akin to the original Silk Road, by which China traded with the Middle East via Central Asian trade centers like Kashgar, Bukhara, and Samarkand. "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," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech outlining the vision. "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." (Clinton was originally scheduled to pitch her counterparts in Istanbul, but the death of her mother forced her to cancel the trip.)
If this is the best Washington can come up with, the future for Afghanistan looks bleak
But hope may be the only thing driving on the New Silk Road. The State Department has few good options in Afghanistan, and the U.S. doesn't want to leave (or at least wants to seem like they won't leave) a disaster behind once it starts pulling troops out in 2014. So it cast about for ideas and found the New Silk Road proposal, which had been bouncing around the post-Soviet think tank circuit in Washington since the mid-oughts.
The plan's architect is Fred Starr, the chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a small Washington, D.C. think tank, with the backing of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. State Department officials have long been wary of the plan, initially dismissing it as unworkable. But it began to gain favor last year at U.S. Central Command, and with its commander at the time, General David Petraeus. Since Marc Grossman became President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year, replacing the late Richard Holbrooke, the State Department has come around to support the strategy. And Clinton has appeared to embrace it as the economic foundation of the U.S.'s post-2014 strategy for Afghanistan, promoting it in her meetings last month with the presidents of three of Afghanistan's neighbors: Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
The origins of the plan, however, lie in geopolitics rather than economics. In the mid-oughts, there were a variety of programs by which the U.S. tried to unite South and Central Asia, including an effort to tie together the electrical grids of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with those of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Authority for the Central Asian countries were also moved under a new State Department bureau, taking them out of the Europen bureau with the rest of the post-Soviet republics and connecting them with South Asia. What these schemes all have in common is that they attempt to weaken the economic (and as a result, political) monopoly that Russia, by dint of the centralized Soviet infrastructure, has on these countries.
As Marlene Laruelle writes in a new book, Mapping Central Asia, which includes a great chapter on the revived metaphor of the New Silk Road: "The underlying geo-economic rationales of these Roads is to exclude Moscow from new geopolitical configurations."
The State Department doesn't say this, of course, and it's possible (even likely) that the people now implementing the strategy don't think of it as such. Clinton even implied that there could be some sort of connection with the Russia-led Customs Union with Kazakhstan and Belarus, which is the basis for Vladimir Putin's notorious Eurasian Union.
But this geopolitical vestige lives on in the current iteration of the New Silk Road. Look at a map of South and Central Asia -- ideally, one where you can see topography and the quality of roads -- and it's apparent that the most sensible way to ship goods from India west is not the northern route over the massive mountain passes and crumbling roads of Central Asia. It's the southern route, through Iran and Turkey. But, obviously, a U.S.-backed plan can't include Iran.