Originally Published 2013-02-08 00:00:00 Published on Feb 08, 2013
After the scheduled western forces drawdown from Afghanistan in 2014, one viable option that would assist Afghan economic development is the US-driven New Silk Road Strategy. But, China, Russia, and Iran have specific visions of a viable NSRS, and these do not necessarily sit well with the US strategy.
A New Silk Road Strategy for Afghanistan
The scheduled 2014 drawdown of the US and ISAF forces from Afghanistan is likely to undermine hard won gains made during the previous decade unless its security and economy are stabilised through indigenous initiatives. In addition to strengthened security and insurgent reconciliation, Afghanistan must develop its domestic and externally-focused economic sectors, offsetting the potential flight of international aid post-2014.

One viable option that would assist Afghan economic development is the US-driven New Silk Road Strategy (NSRS). The strategy, in brief, aims at regional integration through constructing a series of infrastructural connections and working to lessen trade barriers. NSRS can encourage cooperation among Afghanistan's neighbours, hopefully resulting in increased Afghan government revenues and the further development of its domestic industries. In short, NSRS will enable Afghanistan to become a 'land bridge' at the heart of Asia.

It is apparent that the planned (perhaps accelerating) western troop drawdown will cost Afghanistan a major source of economic stimulus. The US believes the NSRS will help develop Afghanistan and ensure interested countries have some 'skin in the game'. While in India (May 2012), then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded, " an international web and network of economic and transit connections...That means building more rail lines, highways, energy infrastructure... And it certainly means removing the bureaucratic barriers and other impediments to the free flow of goods and people."

America has consciously sought to propel NSRS programmes that run along a primarily north-south, Central-South Asia corridor. Two notable initiatives are the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India (TAPI) Pipeline, from which Afghanistan may reap $160 million in annual transport revenues, and the CASA-1000 hydroelectric project, which aims to transmit hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to India and Pakistan. Some NSRS proponents suggest that the overall initiative should start small, with a few key road projects demonstrating viability. Short-term successes will breed investor confidence and secure long-term investments.

However, enduring suspicions regarding American NSRS intentions among some of the regional players - China, Russia and Iran - may prove to be a stumbling block

China's primary preoccupation lies with its energy supply-economic growth matrix. Line A of the Central Asia-China Pipeline, connecting Turkmenistan to China's Xinjiang Province through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was inaugurated and began delivering gas in December 2009. At a November 2011 gathering, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) endorsed a China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, which by default fits well with the broad NSRS framework.

Of perhaps greater importance here is China's 'southern strategy', highlighted with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar. China contributed nearly $200 million in seed funds for port development, supplied additional funds for a 'Pakistan-China' energy corridor, and took over Gwadar operational control from Singapore in October 2012. By connecting Gwadar to China via pipeline networks, China hopes to gain easier access to Middle Eastern (especially Saudi) oil. Proposed extensive railway and road connections to Pakistan are aimed at connecting western Chinese provinces to the Arabian Sea.

China's energy and trade are heavily dependent on shipping through surrounding seas and the Malacca Straits, through which passes about 80% of China's oil imports. By diversifying infrastructural connections via Gwadar, China can more readily secure its insatiable energy appetite, enhance trade relations through Xinjiang and perhaps better counter Islamic extremism in Pakistan and western China.

Russia's NSRS perceptions are opaque. On the one hand, Russia's north-south linkage objectives dovetail with the NSRS general thrust. The Russia-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Tajikistan quadrilateral is instructive. The Russian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee chairman has noted, "Russia may become a donor of economic, social and military-political security for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan." An overland route connecting South and Central Asia (through Afghanistan and Pakistan) would also give Russia cherished Indian Ocean access.

At the November 2011 SCO summit, President Putin offered $500 million to CASA-1000, supported TAPI, and offered to revive Soviet-era Afghan infrastructure projects. At the gathering he noted, "I believe we need to form a strong infrastructural outline of the Shanghai Organization? This will help realise the huge transit potential of the region and secure its role as a link between Europe and the Asian-Pacific region." This perspective bolsters American objectives, without explicitly endorsing them.

On the other hand, Russia remains wary of American motives. On 3 November 2011, commenting on the 'Istanbul Process', a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman noted, " has shown the regional states' growing desire to shape the political landscape of the region on their own, without outside interference." The statement indicated wariness of an American-guided NSRS, aimed at wresting Central Asia from Russia's traditional influence. While it may support certain NSRS projects, Russia keeps a suspicious eye on the growing American influence in an area which it once considered Russia's exclusive domain.

Persia was integral to the original Silk Road. However, American preoccupations with north-south-oriented NSRS projects would seemingly downgrade Iran's potential role. The "Everything excluding Iran" NSRS, as one commentator termed it, has drawn sharp rebukes. Iran's Afghan Department head noted, "The issue of building a New Silk Road by the United States and some European countries that have never been situated in the geographical area of Silk Road is unjustifiable and suspicious."

America insists NSRS merely prioritises Afghan development. Leeway for India in that country's Afghan-related Iran dealings is cited as evidence of American benign neglect. However, both the Bush and Obama Administrations pressured India to scrap its Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline (IPI) involvement, while vigorously promoting TAPI. Whether meaningful integration can occur in light of these ongoing Iran-American tensions remains questionable.

However, Iran is not completely bereft of options. It turned to a 'southern Silk Road' strategy, linking the country with Central and South Asia. Iran invested nearly $350 million in the Chabahar Port and has reached out to India for supplemental funding on Afghan infrastructure projects. Such links will be crucial if Pakistan continues to deny overland transit rights between India and Afghanistan. Iran's $43 million allocation to improve the 125-km 'Golden Transit Route' linking Iran to Herat, Anzab Tunnel grants to Tajikistan, and resources earmarked for Afghan bridge upgrades on the Helmand and Parian Rivers are part of an Iranian silk route distinct from that envisioned by America.

China, Russia, and Iran have specific visions of a viable NSRS, and these do not necessarily sit well with the US strategy. In part, they suspect the NSRS is a US red herring to distract attention from a possible post-2014 abandonment of Afghanistan.

Despite serious differences, there are undeniably considerable benefits to all stakeholders in promoting greater connectivity within the region. Besides economic payoffs, a stable and progressive Afghanistan can usher in a sense of peace and stability not only in the region, but in the world. NSRS can function as a catalyst for this transformation.

(The writer is a Henry Luce Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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