Small Wars Journal

Detour Needed: The 'New Silk Road' and a False Hope for a Troubled Afghanistan

Thu, 06/20/2013 - 3:30am

On a sultry July afternoon in a crowded hall at the Anna Centenary Library in Chennai, India, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the strength of Indo-U.S. relations.  She highlighted the many public and private links shared by the two countries, while outlining an optimistic, cooperative framework for the future.  The Secretary’s speech illustrated a number of international issues affecting both states, eventually raising the matter of Afghanistan.   With the impending withdrawal of Western security forces in 2014, an Afghanistan bereft of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was very much on the minds of those present in Chennai.  Clinton used the Indian forum to reveal a bold strategy for salvaging a post-transition Afghanistan, a concept she described as the ‘New Silk Road’,

“Let’s work together to create a new Silk Road. Not a single thoroughfare like its namesake, but an international web and network of economic and transit connections. That means building more rail lines, highways, energy infrastructure, like the proposed pipeline to run from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan, through Pakistan into India. It means upgrading the facilities at border crossings, such as India and Pakistan are now doing at Waga. And it certainly means removing the bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people. It means casting aside the outdated trade policies that we all still are living with and adopting new rules for the 21st century.”[1]

Intending to bring the newly independent Central Asian republics into line with democracy and liberal economic principles, the notion of resurrecting the ‘Silk Road’ was adopted by U.S. foreign policy in the wake of Soviet rule shortly after the collapse of the USSR.  However, the New Silk Road that Secretary Clinton promulgated in the summer and fall of 2011 included a different objective:  to stave off disaster in a post-ISAF Afghanistan.  According to the restructured New Silk Road (NSR) strategy, Central and South Asian regional economic integration, alongside intensive development initiatives throughout Afghanistan, would at least soften the blow of the removal of Western security forces from Afghanistan in 2014.  The NSR gained a considerable amount of traction among diplomats and strategists alike, and it especially caught on within the AF/PAK Bureau at the State Department.

In a strictly policy-planning environment, the NSR approach to a successful 2014 transition is a remarkably well-planned initiative that addresses a virtually insurmountable problem facing our national security.  On paper, the NSR can appear to be the economic remedy that will not only alleviate Afghanistan and Central Asia's economic woes, but also increase intraregional trade and cooperation within some of the international community’s most diplomatically austere, politically turbulent, and economically decrepit regions.  In practice however, the NSR is a hollow concept that will not translate into any substantial economic benefits for Central Asians, Afghans, or Pakistanis alike.  To the north, success is contingent upon the cooperation of Central Asia’s ruthlessly autocratic and insular regimes, interested in trade inasmuch as a means of maintaining a system of patronage upon which the ruling elite relies.  On its southern flank, the New Silk Road hopes to inexplicably integrate an increasingly tumultuous and antagonistic Pakistan into a larger economic framework.  Regarding Afghanistan, the plan examines the country through a Kabul-centric lens that completely distorts the reality as it exists outside of Afghanistan’s better governed, yet few urban concentrations. 

The reality is that U.S. foreign policy has made little to no headway in implementing the NSR since Secretary Clinton's speech in Chennai in 2011.  For example, the walls impeding trade between the post-Soviet Central Asian republics remain just as solid as ever.  Though trade between these five republics comprised around 20% of their aggregate total during the last year of the Soviet Union, intra-regional trade plummeted after independence, gradually dwindling to 5.9% roughly two decades later in 2010.[2] Despite the best efforts of policy-makers and diplomats, this paltry volume of exchanged goods between the republics has hovered around this percentage.  Regional projects designed to cultivate cross-border economic connectivity have all but completely stalled.  For instance, U.S. diplomats have been consistently unsuccessful in persuading Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov to allow an independently owned corporation to take the reins in starting the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, an initiative crucial to the NSR.[3] Construction of the Rogun Dam in Tajikistan serves as another clear example of the enormous hurdles prohibiting effective regional economic cooperation.  The dam, originally planned by Soviet officials some four decades ago,  would generate much needed hydroelectric power in Tajikistan, which could then provide excess power to an energy-depraved Afghanistan.  Nevertheless, the program has become completely mired in an interminable Uzbek-Tajik rivalry.[4] Yet another testament to Central Asian states' inability to overcome these inhibitions is the perennially deadlocked Central Asia/South Asia energy infrastructure program, CASA-1000.  Another regional and energy-oriented project, CASA-1000 has proven to be little more than another casualty of mutual suspicion and fractious relations, foundering any hopes for Tajik cooperation with a wary Kyrgyzstan.[5]

On the southern flank of the NSR lies an increasingly turbulent Pakistan.  Proponents of the NSR believe that Pakistani participation in a larger, regional economic nexus is vital to the success of a post-transition Afghanistan.  As evidence to the feasibility of Pakistani integration, NSR defenders offer the Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), a bilateral agreement signed in 2010 between Afghanistan and Pakistan designed to expand commercial activity between the two states.  This ambitious arrangement attempted to boost government revenues in the face of the enormous unofficial economy and rampant corruption existing within Pashtunistan, a geographic expanse encompassing huge swaths of territory along Southern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan.  The arrangement ultimately increased mutual suspicion of transit violations and possibly hurt Pakistan’s domestic economy.[6] What the agreement did accomplish was to slightly heighten the degree of visibility on unofficial trade across the Pakistani-Afghan border; approximately 30% of containerized shipments along the porous border were revealed to have no official or legal accountability.[7] The problem is not the amount of trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan; rather, it is a systemic fault with the structure of Pakistani-Afghan trade.   Increasing the volume of trade along the shadowy border regions in Pashtunistan has done little more than further line the pockets of corrupt officials.      

Additionally, it was far-fetched in 2011 to assume that the U.S. had sufficient diplomatic capital in Pakistan to move the country toward an unnatural trade partner:  its viscerally hated Indian neighbor.  Given the events that have shaken an already rocky Pakistani-U.S. relationship in the past two years, it is even less reasonable to expect such change in Pakistan today.  Mercurial relations with the United States have slowly driven the chronically troubled Pakistani state into the orbit of other regionally-interested actors.   In an effort to circumvent a problematic, yet economically necessary partnership with the U.S., Pakistan has turned to its “all-weather friend”, the People’s Republic of China.[8] Taking into account the impending withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and Pakistan’s increasing economic maladies, these factors only place a greater exigency on a search for unconditional economic and military assistance from Pakistan's potential foreign partners.  This significantly limits the ability of U.S. policymakers to influence a less dependent Pakistani government, a critical player in the Afghan security dilemma and an essential partner in the regional framework proposed by the NSR strategy.

If post-Soviet Central Asian economic integration appears bleak, then including Pakistan in such an economic undertaking must appear utterly hopeless.  Mutual frustrations, as well as negative Pakistani expectations for Afghanistan’s near future, have hampered Pakistan’s trading relationship with its northern neighbor.  An enduring proxy-war with India allows little more than official, yet entirely empty, Pakistani calls for increased bilateral trade.  A precipitously deteriorating domestic situation has many within the international community questioning Pakistan’s ability to remain afloat in the near to mid-future.  It is with these concerns in mind that a great deal of doubt is cast over the country’s ability to contribute to a larger, regional economic framework as proposed by the NSR strategy.  Cultural inhibitions, obsessive and existential security concerns, a weakening economic growth rate (unstably coupled with a booming population[9]), and a persistent political identity crisis are to name but a few of the ineluctable roadblocks on the path to greater Pakistani economic ties to a regional community.  A Pakistan embroiled in and preoccupied with such irreconcilable domestic problems cannot realistically be expected to embrace economic integration in the time frame proposed by the NSR strategy.     

If Afghanistan is to serve as the 'Heart of Asia', as suggested by the title of the meetings associated with the Istanbul Process, then Asia is in dire need of bypass surgery.  Regarding investment in Afghanistan, a critical component of NSR strategy, reasonable trepidation over Afghanistan’s near future has all but completely nullified public and private investment.  More than $4.6 billion has been withdrawn within the past few years.[10] Afghanistan runs a current account deficit totaling an alarming 45% of its GDP, with few reliable exports, mostly carpets, gems, and agriculture, bringing in around $376 million, about one-seventeenth the cost of imports.[11] This data is overshadowed by the overwhelming reliance of the Afghan economy on foreign aid.  In the summer of 2011, when the NSR became the mainstay strategy for the Afghan transition, foreign aid constituted as much as 97% of Afghanistan's GDP.[12] These endemic economic issues are worsened by the pervasive, firmly entrenched corruption networks that cause donors to question the efficacy of doling out aid altogether.[13] A U.S. State Department report written in 2012 on the investment climate in Afghanistan described the many obstacles facing foreign investment, including a poorly organized and embryonic legal system, deep corruption among government officials, as well as other, less recognized roadblocks,

“While not sanctioned by law or official policy, small groups of businessmen, many of whom are alleged to have connections with current or former warlords and militias, dominate the trading market in many areas. These individuals, because of their wealth and insider access to land, credit and contacts, and their ability to manipulate prices, enjoy excessive advantages that result in a non-competitive environment in some fields, notably gem-mining, fuel transport, and construction. In addition, some industries, including money changing and carpet production, have well-organized guilds which protect existing firms and create barriers to entry.”[14]

When considering any possible solution to the situation in Afghanistan, many policy-makers and strategists have made a fatal habit of viewing Afghanistan through a Kabul-centric lens, a distortion that allows leaders to see Afghanistan solely through the more legible and tractable urban centers like Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat.  It neglects the obstreperous regions that exist in the shadows of governance within Afghanistan, such as the distant trenches of Marjah, the remote villages of Uruzgan, or the depths of the Korengal Valley.  The strategic value of these less governed regions is beyond question.  Though the Helmand Province might only account for 3%  of Afghanistan's population, it supplies approximately 40%  of the world's poppy, with a recent UN report claiming that production has risen threefold in the province since 2006.[15] NSR defenders see the whole of Afghanistan as Kabul.  Take the NSR supporters' staunch belief that increased mineral and gem extraction will somehow translate to categorical, countrywide gains in employment.  Though a boom in export revenues might delight the Afghan Central Bank in Kabul, it is difficult to claim that it will grant benefits to Afghanistan's peripheral regions.  Outside of the immense initial capital costs in conducting extensive mining operations, not an insignificant factor when considering the reluctance of firms to invest in Afghanistan, the effects of expansion in Afghanistan's mining industry might be more ambiguous than NSR defenders anticipate.  For instance, a World Bank report on economic growth in the country accurately describes this issue,

“However, the development of the mineral sector risks of further burdening the country’s fragile governance.  Moreover, mining is pre-dominantly a capital-intensive activity which will only generate a limited number of jobs.  Unless linkages to other economic sectors are strengthened, mining development is unlikely to bring relief to the poor and vulnerable population in Afghanistan.”[16]

Given the budgetary reign-of-terror that has gripped Washington, it is highly unlikely that the enormous volume of aid will continue to flow to Kabul after the withdrawal of U.S. troops. A New York Times and CBS news poll conducted in March of 2012 found that 69% of Americans believe that the U.S  should not be at war in Afghanistan, with 44% of respondents stating that the U.S. should withdraw sooner than 2014, allowing for a safe assumption that the public will not miss U.S. dollars bound for Afghanistan. [17] Austerity measures that have befallen many NATO members will probably affect European aid similarly.  Increasingly sour relations between Washington and Kabul, punctuated by events such as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's tense initial visit to Afghanistan, makes the prospect of continued aid even less likely.  It was Afghan President Hamid Karzai who once said, that among his three main enemies:  the U.S., the international community, and the Taliban, he would side first with the Taliban.[18]  Though it is far from certain whether Karzai and the Taliban will become bedfellows after 2014, a discouragingly tenuous relationship with the U.S. has driven the Afghan leader to look elsewhere for support.  Karzai's recent request for Indian aid has alienated Afghanistan's suspicious neighbor to the south, Pakistan.[19] Rather than further integrating into a cooperative regional network as prescribed by the NSR, Afghanistan has in fact moved in the opposite direction throughout the past two years.

At the New Silk Road Ministerial Meeting held at the German House in New York City in September of 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the necessity of multilateral cooperation in South and Central Asia, as well as the seemingly limitless, yet nascent economic potential of the region.  Addressing the considerable obstacles facing the NSR, Secretary Clinton stated,

"At each step of the way down this road, in the short-, medium- and long-term, economic and political progress will be mutually reinforcing. Nations will not only enjoy the benefits of greater trade but they will also enjoy the benefits that come from working together. And we know that    there has to be tangible improvements in people’s lives."[20]

Within the past two years, are those invested in the NSR's success any closer to implementing this vision?  The answer is a resounding no.  Some of the NSR's proponents cling to superficial diplomatic arrangements, such as perpetual discussions involving Central Asian infrastructure projects or empty dialogue surrounding the white elephant that is investment and aid in Afghanistan.  Those convinced of the NSR's feasibility might look to ostensible Central Asian overtures for World Trade Organization membership as adequate evidence of the possibility of regional economic harmony.  The truth of the matter differs significantly from the roseate views of NSR defenders.  Central Asian despots are no closer to economic liberalization and integration than they were a decade ago.  Pakistan, hardly in an opportune position in 2011 for the trade reforms and regional integration needed for the NSR, is even worse off today.  Afghanistan, crippled by widespread corruption and a virtually inexorable insurgency, barely limps along, temporarily buoyed by streams of foreign aid. 


So, if not the NSR, then what?  The options available to allay potential disaster in a post-2014 Afghanistan are, to say the least, limited.  And, after all, it is much easier to sit and poke holes in others' planning than it is to develop an approach to dealing with a hugely complex dilemma affecting international security.  However,  one thing is certain:  the U.S. is much too late in the game to achieve sweeping regional economic transformation as prescribed by the NSR approach.  With less than two years before the complete withdrawal of Western security forces from Afghanistan, mitigating the regional effects of a potential security vacuum in a post-transition Afghanistan must become the top priority.  In order to stabilize the region, especially considering Central Asia, the U.S. has little alternative than to cooperate with two global rivals, Russia and China.  As unpalatable as this may be, it is essential to collaborate with Russia, who has maintained the diplomatic high-ground within the post-Soviet Central Asian republics via powerful economic and political levers.  For instance, an astounding third of Tajikistan's GDP consists of remittances from Tajik workers employed in Russia. [21]  Russia is still the only permanent regional military presence (a U.S. presence in Manas post-2014 is still in question), with a motorized battalion stationed in Tajikistan and an airbase at Kant, Kyrgyzstan.  Aside from an unrelenting Russian grip on Central Asian affairs, China has continuously expanded investment in Central and South Asia, including Afghanistan, consequently increasing its influence in the region.  China also authored the provisions of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral arrangement between China, Russia, and the Central Asian republics (sans Turkmenistan) mostly based on mutual security concerns. 

Given the less than amicable relations between the three stakeholders in such a scenario, cooperation might seem well out of reach.  However, there is an overwhelming congruence regarding security interests in Central and South Asia between the U.S., China, and Russia, so much so that collaboration seems almost natural despite international rivalry.  Russia is deeply concerned about the drug trade along Afghanistan's northern border, a situation that will likely worsen after 2014.  China is paranoid about extremist Islamist influences emanating from Afghanistan, possibly stirring unrest in its largely Muslim and restive Xinjiang Province.  The U.S. hardly wants Afghanistan to return to its antebellum status quo, a veritable breeding ground for terrorism that contributed to the attacks on September 11th.  Though this tacit relationship, at its very best, might prove extremely tenuous, it is vital to regional stability and international security.  The NSR vision is absolutely guilty of ignoring the Russian 'bear in the room' as well as a seemingly inexhaustible Chinese checkbook, with both of which the U.S. must inevitably cooperate.        

In any case, the U.S. will not solve its post-2014 problems by hopelessly clinging to the NSR strategy.  The NSR vision, despite its brilliance in the theoretical realm of policy-planning, is little more than wishful thinking for a looming and severe problem that will invariably affect international security.  U.S. policy needs to focus on more viable alternatives, whether it is simply battening down the hatches and trying to contain and mitigate the effects of the security transition, or working alongside some unlikely partners.  This needs to happen before public attention and, consequently, available funds inevitably vanish after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  Preventing post-transition disaster in Afghanistan is of critical importance to national security, and the clock is ticking.

[1] Clinton, Hillary R. "Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Speaks on India and the United States: A Vision for the 21st Century." Speech. Anna Centenary Library, Chennai.Consulate General of the United States. U.S. Department of State, 20 July 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2013. <>.

[2] Mogilevskii, Roman. Trends and Patterns in Foreign Trade of Central Asian Countries. Publication. University of Central Asia, 2012. Web. 12 May 2013. <>.

[3] "Turkmenistan Continues Search for Investment in TAPI." Business News Europe, 6 May 2013. Web. 7 May 2013. <>.

[4] Keene, Eli. "Solving Tajikistan’s Energy Crisis." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 13 May 2013. <>.

[5] Marat, Erica. "Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan Disagree on CASA-1000." The Jamestown Foundation, 22 June 2012. Web. 16 May 2013. <>.

[6] Shakil, FM. "Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade: Business Community Still Not Convinced." The Tribune, 28 July 2011. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <>.

[7] Maken, Aftab. "Afghan Transit Trade Falls after APTTA 2010 Became Operational." The News, 24 Apr. 2012. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <>.

[8] Rashid, Ahmed. "Changing the Narrative—or Preparing for the Worst." Pakistan on the Brink. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. 195. Print.

[9] "Media Urged to Play Role against Population Explosion." Pakistan Today, 3 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Mar. 2013. <>.

[10] Najibullah, Farangis, and Zarif Nazar. "Out With The Troops, In With The Afghan Investment?" Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Mar. 2013. <>.

[11] Mallet, Victor. "Afghanistan’s Forgotten Crisis: Its Economy." The Financial Times, 20 May 2013. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

[12] Memmott, Mark. "Billions In Afghan Aid May Not Do Long-Term Good, Senate Report Warns." NPR, 9 June 2011. Web. 15 May 2013. <>.

[13] Brinkley, Joel. "Money Pit: The Monstrous Failure of US Aid to Afghanistan." World Affairs, 2013. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

[14] 2012 Investment Climate Statement - Afghanistan. Rep. Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, June 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2013. <>.

[15] Loyn, David. "Afghan Farmers Return to Opium as Other Markets Fail." BBC, 15 Apr. 2013. Web. 20 May 2013.

Rubin, Alissa J. "In Afghanistan, Poppy Growing Proves Resilient." The New York Times, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

[16] "Growth in Afghanistan." The World Bank, Feb. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2013. <,,contentMDK:20592478~menuPK:579404~pagePK:34004173~piPK:34003707~theSitePK:579398,00.html>.

[17] Bumiller, Elizabeth. "Support in U.S. for Afghan War Drops Sharply, Poll Finds." The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2012. Web. 12 Mar. 2013. <>.

[18] Rashid, Ahmed. "Afghanistan:  Political and Military Fault Lines." Pakistan on the Brink. New York: Penguin Group, 2012. 95. Print.

[19] Turnage, James. "Hamid Karzai Seeks Indian Aid." The Guardian Express, 19 May 2013. Web. 20 May 2013. <>.

[20] Clinton, Hillary R. "Remarks at the New Silk Road Ministerial Meeting." Speech. New Silk Road Ministerial Meeting. The German House, New York. 22 Sept. 2011. U.S. Department of State, 22 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013. <>.

[21] "Remittances in Europe and Central Asia: Between the Euro Crisis and Russia’s Growth Prospects." UNDP, n.d. Web. 5 Mar. 2013.


About the Author(s)

Joseph Cheravitch is a current Masters of Science in Foreign Service graduate student at Georgetown University.  Prior to entering graduate school, he was an active duty Military Information Support Operations NCO.  He deployed to Helmand, Afghanistan (2010), as well as Diyala, Iraq (2011).


Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 06/21/2013 - 10:45am

<blockquote> 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.</blockquote>……

I thought some of the vested interests were sort of crony capitalist in nature; someone else needs to provide the security for it to work on any level?

This was never more than pie in the sky fantasy from the start, and many of us said so when the idea first came up.

I used to pint out that back in the days of the old silk road, silk was an incredibly expensive luxury good. One reason for that was that convoys were subject to extortion and expropriation form any number of capricious local overlords along the various routes (the old silk road was never a "single thoroughfare"). That hasn't changed much.

There's a chicken-and-egg aspect to this: you can't fix the economy without security, and you can't have security without a functioning economy. The answer to that conundrum is simply that we can't "fix" this area and shouldn't try.


Thu, 06/20/2013 - 4:25pm

Sounds like what you are advocating is that the greatest powers around work together to contain the region and then inject some stabilizing incentives. I read this to mean that the NSR imagines the US as the designer of this stabilization and the regional states as the artistic medium. Your conclusion would imply the need for three designers.

I would welcome more discussion on the vested interests in the NSR. My intuitive sense is that it isn't the product of an idealistic group of policy analysts. Even if it was at first, it wouldn't have any teeth without some relatively powerful "investors" who may not be at all comfortable with losing "share" to the Russians and/or Chinese. In the end, a super-power stomp team would mean split shares of influence and access.