One idea the U.S. State Department is pushing is the New Silk Road:essentially rebuilding the
ancient spice route that once linked Europe and the Middle East with Asia. Within Afghanistan,the idea is tremendously popular; it offers a chance for Afghanistan to develop markets apartfrom its Iranian and Pakistani neighbors (both of whom exert malign influence there).The plan, however, is flawed in several ways. For one, it ignores the politics of the region, whichare intensely personal and fairly antagonistic. Another problem is price; it is still far cheaper toship goods from Asia to Europe via the ocean than it is over land on trains and trucks. Even withfurther development, it is unlikely that a land route can prove less expensive than an oceancrossing.
There are also competing regional economic institutions, starting with Vladimir Putin’s latest
and Kazakhstan). While it’s far from certain that the “other” EU will coalesce into a true economic block, it is much further along than the State Department’s New Silk Road idea.
U.S. interest in Central Asia has some observers worried, however. Cornelius Graubner, a
program officer from George Soros’
Open Society Institute is worried that the U.S. focus onAfghanistan, and its security assistance with the regimes of Central Asia, might actually makethe region worse off. The assumption driving U.S. interest, he argues, is that instability from anunsettled Afghanistan will spillover northward, creating more instability there. While he is rightto point out that Afghanistan is not the only (or even the biggest) threat to regional stability, there
just isn’t much evidence that a fear of Afghan instability is driving U.S. interest in the region.
Analysts more closely associated with the U.S. government show a different set of assumptionsat play. Sarah Chayes, a former advisor for the U.S. military, thinks Uzbekistan might hold thekey to making connections to Afghanistan that the international community lacks:
While present in fewer numbers than in Pakistan or Iran, Afghans travel and live in Uzbekistan,and those encountered, from senior diplomats to an itinerant rug merchant, are enthusiasticabout the country and the role it has played in theirs
a contrast with the attitudes of most Afghans toward Pakistan. That rug merchant boasts of forwarding 2 percent of his profits to Abdul Rashid Dostum, mercurial former Afghan general and warlord, seen as a leader of theethnic Uzbek community. Every businessman he knows, claims the merchant, even non-Afghancitizens, tithes likewise.
Ms. Chayes is probably overstating those connections a bit (a carpet vendor is hardly
representative of all Uzbek businessmen, many of whom are closely tied to the President’s
family), her argument that the neighboring countries offer social and political ties we can learnfrom is spot on.Developing a policy for the region is no easy task. But efforts like the New Silk Road initiative,even if optimistic in outlook, show an unusual forward thinking to U.S. policy. It is rare to hearofficials speak of five years or longer timeframes when making plans, yet that is what ishappening in Central Asia.