The Brilliant, Unworkable New Silk Road

Tying Central Asia together with trade is a great idea that needs a heavy dose of realism

The China-Germany Rail Route

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Turkey seems as good a place as any to ponder the latest grand policy idea for Central Asia filtering out of the U.S. government. Parag Khanna ably sums up the current zeitgeist for the "New Silk Road," as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute chairman Fred Starr, and others are calling it:

In many respects, New Silk Road is the obvious approach that should have been executed a decade ago: locally owned, private sector enabling and regionally focused. Afghanistan may remain the poorest country in Eurasia for many years to come, but it stands a better chance of prospering as the "Asian Roundabout" - a crossroads for Euro-Asian commerce - than as a permanent American protectorate. As Hillary Clinton recently said in Chennai, the New Silk Road would "not be a single thoroughfare, but an international web and network of economic and transit connections." Substituting a self-sufficient economic model for military occupation is the only way to achieve the "transition dividend" the administration is hoping for.

This is actually an amazing idea ... or would be, if it were workable. The problems with it become apparent when you unpack the assumptions underlying it: that Afghanistan actually is well suited as a commercial hub, that any other country in Central Asia really wants to trade with any other country in Central Asia, that the local governments would actually support "locally owned, private sector" economic initiatives (however those words are defined) and so on.

As a brief example, let's look at a frequent subject of debate on my other blog,, Uzbekistan. I warily support the policy of increasing U.S. Security Assistance to the country to expand the NDN so that policymakers will have alternates to relying on the far more toxic, abusive, and dangerous regime in Pakistan. It is a least bad option to me, which doesn't mean it's a good choice (and that was very sloppy phrasing on my part). Still, people like our own Michael Hancock disagree with even that, and that's okay -- this isn't easy, not by a long shot.

In order to tie Uzbekistan into a New Silk Road, which is necessary if the goal of making Afghanistan a commercial crossroads to Eurasia is to become reality, several things must happen. The first thing that must happen is that Uzbek leader Islom Karimov would need to care, even a little bit, about Uzbekistan's business community. He clearly does not. And he's not alone: Turkmenistan also has a very business-hostile climate, and Kyrgyzstan is hardly a friendly place for investment and business creation (I'm actually on my way to Kyrgyzstan right now to investigate some issues relating to local business issues).

So, on a basic level, the good idea of tying together Central Asia based on locally driven economic development runs up against the hostile (and, for the past 20 years, unmovable)  climate for business investment. Despite that reality, which is obvious to anyone who spends even a short amount of time actually examining the business climate in this region, the prospects of a New Silk Road driving regional prosperity already seems to be entrenched as official policy. Without a great deal of further thought, years of planning and diplomatic cajoling, and no expectations for real change in anything less than a decade, this is pretty terrible magical thinking.

To wit: last year, Parag Khanna was pushing this same idea, only for China. Like the new, U.S.-driven model, his Old New Silk Road Idea was plagued by magical thinking, and seemed hopelessly at odds with the history of economic and political development in the region. I mean, look at this:

Appropriately then, all of the anchor projects currently being funded and considered in the New Silk Road process involve regional resource corridors, meaning they are focused more on physically connecting oil, gas and minerals such as copper and lithium to markets irrespective of which political borders they lie within or across. The TAPI pipeline could carry natural gas from Turkmenistan's Caspian Sea coast all the way through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. A national railway system for Afghanistan, already supported by CENTCOM, is already under construction and would help transport Afghanistan's abundant mineral wealth to the emerging markets around it. And the CASA-1000 project will transfer electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan. The New Silk Road, then, is both North-South as well as East-West.

TAPI (the The Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline) is not going to happen anytime soon. China already has a gas pipe running east; Russia controls the rest of them going west. Afghanistan is far too unstable -- and will remain far too unstable -- to support a massive, vulnerable infrastructure development like a pipeline for a very long time. And by then, the economics just wouldn't work out (just ask Unocal, who tried this in 1998). Same with the railway system. There is a good reason China has not yet build railways to cart away Afghanistan's gold from the mines it owns: the economics and security just don't support it. ISAF can barely keep its highways clear of IEDs.

And don't even get me started on the phantom regional electrical grid. Afghanistan's purchasing of electricity from Uzbekistan is tenuous enough; transmitting electricity from two electricity-poor countries to a much less electricity-poor country makes little sense.

These ideas, like most of the New Silk Road theories, sound feasible if you don't think about them too hard. It's the Unicorn School of Geopolitics: If only everything were awesome and everyone got along, we could totally build a new regional framwork!

Recent meetings around D.C. to push this idea -- shepharded by Fred Starr, who's been all about it for several years now -- are great at pulling together the terminal countries: Afghanistan and Germany, as they did last September 29. What they have not yet succeeded in doing is drawing together any of the countries between, say, Afghanistan and Germany ... like Uzbekistan. Considering that this event was held literally up the road from the Uzbek embassy, this sort of omission is pretty glaring.

Besides which, China is already developing trans-regional transportation networks. And it ain't easy: though the ground route takes half as much time as it would to ship something from China to Europe by sea, it is far more expensive and difficult. I can see the urge to look at that and say "let's try to make this easier and cheaper." But until it really is cheaper to ship something 6,000 miles over land than it is to ship it 10,000 miles on a container ship, the whole thing is just not going to work.

Central Asia desperately needs a development policy, and it wouldn't hurt from some U.S. leadership on the issue. But utopian dreams of a Central Asian Customs Union, or something, seem so far out into left field I'm surprised it has gained as much traction as it has. Central Asia needs logic and planning, but the New Silk Road isn't it.

A version of this post appeared at