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.)
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.