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