Afghanistan and America’s New Silk Road Strategy
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

The security situation in Afghanistan continues to follow a declining curve. Not only the NATO supply routes through Pakistan have been attacked by the Taliban the logistics coming through Uzbekistan via the Northern Distribution Network have also come under Taliban attack.
Relations between the US and Pakistan have not improved much; Pakistan’s stance on Haqqani group continues to sour US-Pakistan relationship with. The US Congress has voted for the Haqqani group to be designated as a terror group. It is well accepted that Pakistan continues to provide shelter to Quetta Shura and other assorted militant groups despite its avowals to the contrary. America has been advocating a regional solution to the Afghan puzzle and its ‘new Silk Road Strategy’ unveiled last year is claimed to be a part of the same. Though the strategy largely stresses on regional economic integration with Afghanistan yet it is not devoid of geo-strategic connotations. Finding a regional solution to the Afghan imbroglio has been one of the main planks of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy since 2009. However, so far, the US has largely been looking for a US led solution.

The question therefore arises is whether America’s new Silk Road strategy is really new or whether it is old wine in the new bottle? What are the objectives and significance of this strategy?

America’s Silk Road Strategy can be said to have gone through three iterations. The initial phase commenced with the demise of Soviet Union at the end of 1991. The US and the West were first off the block in making efforts to wean the nascent Central Asian nations away from the Russian influence. At that time Russia had also become weak and expected the West to help it out economically.

The Americans passed a Freedom Support Act of 1992 and a Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999. The main goals were to promote democracy and human rights, foster pro-West orientations in Central Asian nations, support economic growth, and development of transport and communications. Kazakhstan was seen as an ‘energy behemoth’ where American companies invested a great deal in its hydrocarbon sector. According to the thought process of the US administration the US efforts were seen as ‘strengthening independence of the Central Asian states and forestalling Russian, Chinese and Iranian efforts to subvert them’. The overall objective was to integrate theses countries into the European system.

When the US and its allies intervened in Afghanistan post September 2001 terrorist attacks to route out the Taliban the Russians, Chinese and the Central Asian states welcomed the Western powers’ intervention in Afghanistan because it suited their short term strategic interests of dealing with security threats arising from Afghanistan. The Central Asian nations states even offered bases to the US and western troops.

However, the next phase of America’s Silk Road Strategy can be said to have begun in 2005-2006 when the US started promoting a ‘Greater Central Asia Concept/ Strategy’. The term ‘greater Central Asia’ included many areas and countries surrounding the Central Asian nations. Ostensibly, the aim was to promote greater economic integration especially focused on connecting Central Asia and South Asia. The main goal of this phase of strategy was to weaken the Russian control over hydro carbon sector on Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan by building pipelines that bypassed Russian territory. Therefore, not only Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project was a manifestation of this concept, even the Nabucco gas pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline projects (getting oil from Kazakhstan) also were part of this strategy. The argument offered was that the Central Asian nations need diversification of outlets for their natural resources and other products.

To give substance to the greater Central Asian concept the State Department in 2006 included Central Asia in a revamped Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. When Obama appeared on the scene he wanted to reset relations with Russia because of the complex geo-strategic situation prevailing in Afghanistan and Central Asian region which was again a sub-set of the overall global environment wherein the American power was considered to be on the decline. Though Russians and the Central Asian countries did help out the US and its allies by allowing transit of logistics through the Northern Distribution Network (the existing infrastructure and road/rail network of which could become a basis for another silk route) yet the ‘reset’ could not be realized.

The new Silk Road Strategy announced by Hillary Clinton last year (July 2011) is therefore not new; the basic premises of the American strategy in Central Asia have not undergone any change; if at all there is some change, it is in the priority of ends which it wants to achieve in the current milieu of Afghanistan. Top most priority for the US currently is how to get out of Afghanistan gracefully. Connecting Central with South Asia through a network of multimodal transport corridors and networks that include road and rail networks, pipelines, electricity grids and power transmission lines with Afghanistan as a hub are being seen as a panacea to cure at least the economic ills being faced by the region, especially that of Afghanistan leading to peace and stability there. Such a strategy is expected to provide enough revenues to the Afghan government to run its affairs without being dependent on foreign aid in the long run. But the multi-million dollar question remains, security first or the development first? Some American analysts propound the thesis that economic development and growth is possible even in unstable and insecure environment. However, without security all the talk of pipelines and investments in the mineral ores sector of Afghanistan by economic heavy weights like China, India and others would remain a chimera.

Hillary Clinton while explaining this U.S. policy towards Afghanistan had stated that in coming years it would focus on encouraging “stronger economic ties through South and Central Asia so that goods, capital, and people can flow more easily across borders.” She again articulated this new Silk Road concept at a meeting of regional ministers and others in September 2011, stating that “as we look to the future of this region, let us take this precedent (of a past Silk Road) as inspiration for a long-term vision for Afghanistan and its neighbors”. She envisioned a ‘web of economic and transit connections that will bind together a region too long torn apart by conflict and division’.

This kind of regional cooperation and economic integration was further mooted in Istanbul and Bonn Conferences of 2011 on Afghanistan. For instance, the Istanbul Conference had recognized Afghanistan’s role as the land bridge in the ‘Heart of Asia’, connecting South Asia, Central Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East, and reaffirmed their support in the strongest possible terms to the secure, stable and peaceful future of Afghanistan. It also endorsed Afghanistan’s willingness and determination to use its regional and historical position to do its part to promote security and peaceful economic cooperation in the region. The Conference had also stressed the central role of the United Nations in the international affairs which was perhaps an oblique reference to the proclivity of the US to adopt unilateralist approach to international affairs or bypass the UN.

India, together with Russia and Iran has been working on another version of Silk Road. They are founder partners of the International North South Transport Corridor the main goal which was to link not only Central Asia and Russia but also Europe. However, due to many bottlenecks and poor infrastructure in Iran and many other geopolitical problems associated with Iran the full potential of this Corridor has not been realized. India also built a road from Iran border town Zaranj to Delaram in Afghanistan linking up with the Garland highway of Afghanistan. This is one of the most important road-links in land-locked Afghanistan. Zaranj is also linked by Iranian road network to Chabahar port. However, unstable conditions and the influence of the Taliban in the Southern areas of Afghanistan have prevented this route to be exploited fully. Therefore, attempts by India to establish its own versions of silk route have not been very successful.

Further, the Indian companies have decided to invest about US Dollars 10 billion in the iron and steel sector of Afghanistan to exploit the mineral resources of iron ore deposits of Hajigak in Afghanistan. The questions are being asked as to how the products will be evacuated. One project that may take off is construction of 900 KM railway line from Chabahar port to Bamiyan and Hagijak in Afghanistan which would be used for transportation of the products. But then any project by India in Iran upsets the Americans. The abandoning of Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline could have been due to the US pressure besides un-remunerative price quoted by the Iranians for the gas and heavy transit fee asked for by Pakistan (in addition to the security risks).

Broadly, India has been willing to work with any power or a group of countries which could help India gain access to Central Asia including Afghanistan.

The new Silk Road strategy also justifies the leadership role of the US on the premise that the US is the biggest investor in the region. Such an articulation would definitely be contested by China and Russia because of the geopolitical aspects of such a strategy. Though the American intelligentsia talks about the imperatives of involving Russia and China in the realization of this strategy, on the ground very little has been done so far except for utilizing the NDN that goes across Russia and the Central Asian states before connecting to Afghanistan. The SCO as a regional organization has not been given much recognition and credibility by the US and NATO. India would also be chary of any negative connotations associated with this concept that may impact its relations with countries like Russia or other powers in the region. Further, China in its own version of Silk Road strategy has announced its plans for construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Afghanistan and Tajikistan thus avoiding the turbulent Pashtun held areas. In addition China is also doubling up the capacity of the existing Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline to 61 billion cubic meters per year. Not only this China is also going to invest in the oil exploration in Afghanistan that is expected to generate US dollars 7 billion of revenues for Afghanistan. All this is likely to have a negative impact on the construction of TAPI.

On the other hand, if the US as part of its new Silk Road vision is able to influence Pakistan to grant overland transit rights to India then it would be a win-win situation for all involved with Pakistan being one of the biggest gainers as it will earn huge revenues. However, the current state of US-Pak relations leaves much to be desired. Though, Pakistan is part of the TAPI project for building the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India it has so far refrained from seeing the wisdom of acceding to India’s proposal for granting access to Afghanistan in the reverse direction. Therefore, there are many impediments in the realization of the new Silk Road Strategy.

It also needs to be seen than India and the US have signed Strategic Partnership Agreements with Afghanistan, with the intention to intensify their consultation, coordination and cooperation to promote a stable, democratic, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan. In the India-US Strategic Dialogue that took place in June in Washington, according to one analyst, India had refrained from openly endorsing the New Silk Road architecture proposed by the US, with the two sides discussing only the “vision” of enhanced regional connectivity. The two have “reiterated that success in Afghanistan and regional and global security require elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan”.

In the final analysis, the new Silk Road Strategy can be seen as a socio-economic approach combined with geo-political aspects to extricate the US and its coalition allies from an unwinnable situation in Afghanistan. Though regional cooperation has been mentioned as the panacea for the ills of this region the US continues to emphasize on its leadership role without purposefully working towards a regional approach to the Afghan imbroglio. There are many contradictions in the US approach to the region as its new concept excludes countries like Iran, Russia and regional grouping like SCO from its formulations. The above is also compounded by the fact that major players in Central Asia have their own versions of the silk road/routes. And India should be willing to cooperate with any grouping or nation that can help it getting connected to Central Asia and beyond.

Published Date: 13th August 2012

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