Saturday, August 27, 2016


Washington's Silk Road Dream

Afghans walk in the old city of Bamiyan, on an old Silk Road trade route.
Afghans walk in the old city of Bamiyan, on an old Silk Road trade route.
By Muhammad Tahir
"Historically, the nations of South and Central Asia were connected to each other and the rest of the continent by a sprawling trading network called the Silk Road," Hillary Clinton said during her recent trip to the Indian city of Chennai. "Indian merchants used to trade spices, gems, and textiles, along with ideas and culture, everywhere from the Great Wall of China to the banks of the Bosporus. Let's work together to create a new Silk Road."

But times change. This time around, Clinton envisages something that is not "a single thoroughfare like its namesake, but an international web and network of economic and transit connections."

Sounds like a great idea. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Dreams are good, but sometimes a bit of a reality check is in order. First of all, let's consider for a moment this whole idea of the Silk Road. It's a term invented by German geographer Ferdinand von Richtofen in 1877. The concept is just a bit more than a century old.

In the Middle Ages, the territory now associated with the idea of the Silk Road -- spanning South, Central, and East Asia and much of the Middle East -- was controlled by just a few rulers, and the territories of their empires were barely guarded. Borders barely existed. There was no such thing as a passport. The Silk Road itself was never "a single thoroughfare" but rather a messy tangle of interconnected routes. Roads, as a matter of fact, barely existed.

Perhaps even more importantly, the trade links that existed back then appeared against a radically different political and security backdrop.

Just consider Iran. Ancient Persia was undoubtedly an important part of the old Silk Road. But what about modern-day Iran? It is ruled by a regime of religious fanatics who have been targeted by UN sanctions. Doing business with the country is discouraged by international law. So will Iran be a part of this new Silk Road or not?

Then there's historical India, a place that was controlled in ancient times by various empires and kingdoms. Today it is divided into three states -- India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh -- two of which are bitter enemies that have fought at least three bloody wars against each other in less than half a century of their existence. Their relations are still bedeviled by their dispute over Kashmir.

As long as Indian and Pakistani leaders are unwilling to sit down and talk peace, the idea of extending trade links across the region makes little sense. You can certainly argue that promoting trade and transport between them will give them an incentive to behave more rationally toward each other. But it is hard to imagine that this will ever affect the situation in a fundamental way unless the underlying political problems that divide the two countries are addressed.

Pakistan also has an extremely tense relationship with Afghanistan, its neighbor to the west. Pakistani troops recently fired rockets across the border -- not exactly the conditions for a positive business environment.

The fact that security in Pakistan is increasingly threatened by Islamist militants doesn't exactly make it inviting to international investors either. Jihadis, who understand quite well the liberalizing effects that cross-border trade can have, have every interest in prolonging this state of affairs. The limited authority of the central government, deepening ethnic and religious divides, and fragile political institutions aren't helping much, either.

As for Afghanistan, its main export to the rest of the world is still opium -- the one commodity that seems to flow continuously across all regional borders. As for transport, the main infrastructure project of the past 30 years, the 2,200-kilometer Ring Road, has been under construction for the past nine years and still isn't finished -- and that was while U.S.-led international forces were still holding the Taliban more or less in check. Construction has been funded mostly by the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Now Washington pulling out its troops. Will the Afghans manage to maintain the road? Will they be able to keep it secure?

The rest of Central Asia, it turns out, has comparable problems. Uzbekistan has restricted trade with neighboring Tajikistan -- in retaliation, some say, for the Tajiks' plans to build a huge hydropower project. The Uzbeks accuse the Tajiks of siphoning off much-needed water resources.

The Uzbeks are also angry at their neighbors in Kyrgyzstan, where there has been strife involving ethnic Uzbeks. The autocratic president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has never shown the slightest understanding of the values of free trade and open borders. After 21 years in power, he is unlikely to change now.

The same goes for Turkmenistan. Ruled by its own notorious autocrat, Turkmenistan remains one of the most isolated nations on earth. Getting in and out of the country remains extremely difficult even for individual travelers, let alone caravans of traders. This is one of several reasons why the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline project -- under discussion for 16 years -- has never come to pass.

It is no accident that the government of Turkmenistan is now being sued for breach of contract by five Turkish companies that have done business there, while another two dozen or so are considering similar action.

These are not academic issues. All of these countries are in dire economic straits precisely because they are stifled by bureaucracy and corruption -- conditions that stem directly from the way they are ruled. Only Kyrgyzstan is not under the rule of an out-and-out dictator, but there as well democratic institutions and the rule of law are woefully underdeveloped.

Yet Central Asia seems to stand at the center of the latest version of the Silk Road project, tirelessly promoted by some U.S. policymakers and Washington think tanks. The State Department and the Pentagon are among its most enthusiastic supporters.

Perhaps they can make it work. Secretary Clinton's vision of trade caravans moving from the Bosporus to China, from New Delhi to Almaty, is seductive.

But wishing for such a thing does not make it so. So far, there is little evidence that any of these countries really understands the benefits that permeable borders and smoothly flowing trade could bring it. Until some of them do, it is hard to imagine how a 21st-century Silk Road can ever come to pass.

Muhammad Tahir is a Washington correspondent for RFE/RL and former correspondent of the IHA Turkish News Agency in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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Comment Sorting
by: Aibek
August 01, 2011 13:50
Secretary Clinton is not the only one talking about this. Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey... yes, and Iran, are all interested in building trade across their borders.

Making it happen is of course another matter altogether. But it is not Hillary's vision alone.

by: Senjo
August 02, 2011 02:18
The USA is hardly a model of free trade promotion. Look at the opposition to NAFTA and how free trade agreements with Colombia and Korea go nowhere due to political interests. Perhaps Mde Secretary should be leading those agreements through her own Congress as examples. Once again, the world is asked to do as America says, not as it does.

by: Aftab Kazi from: Washington, DC
August 02, 2011 04:25
Sirs: we at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program have been working on the new Silk Road Strategies for almost two decades. Even the Greater Central Asia Partnership doctrine is the brain child of our esteemed chairman Professor Dr. S. Frederick Starr. We understand that diverse regional and international perceptions on the subject matter arecausing delays and ceratinly there will be delays, until and unless the regional Eurasian, Central Asian powers and China feel ready for a comprehensive arrangement of regional integration. Observing the ongoing regional and international processes involved in new Silk Road strategy, I personally believe that not the international geopolitic and geoeconomics, as called by new vocabulary, but the regional Geopolinomics -also a new word- that is actually working in the region from historical, social, cultural and economic factors will ultimately be responsible for resurgence of New Silk Roads. As evident from the recent SCO Summit in Astana, Eurasian and Central Asian powers and China do welcome the development of trade and transition projects, but never attempted to hide their fears of the "politics" that might return to region behind trade and transit. I believe that such issues among East and West need to be thoroughly worked out, before the New Silk Roads are revived and trade starts flowing from China, through Central Asia and Caucasus and Eurasia to the European continet. Until then, despite our best wishes there are bound to be hurdles in the path of this very important project. Most importantly we in West need to accommodate our understanding to respect the sociopolitical culture of this huge Euro-Asia continent, which thrives by its own ancient customs and structures of all kinds. It appears that until an East-West understanding on trade rules is reached, the Euro-Asian trade will be developing geopolinomically, albeit gradually. Let us hope that once the peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan is achieved, which sooner or later will likely come though on regional terms, the atmosphere for the revival of new silk roads will materialize, albeit gradually. With respectful regards for our readers.

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In Response

by: Bulent
August 02, 2011 22:50
Mr. Kazi, the problem is, it seems that all this idea is no more than just a fantasy. Look at the realities on ground.
In south Asia people are living on the tiny line between the death and life. Nothing is safe anymore, abduction of people to raise money became routine business, in situation like this someone must be idiot to go to those regions with truck loaded goods or with briefcase full of dollars.
In Central Asia there is no legal protection to do anything, you invest billions, if next day dictator is not happy, it will take only few hours that you will end up in jail, losing everything you had. In the Middle East, tell me how you and your good would be passed Iran, Iraq, Syria? I respect what you and your institution does, but it's just a fantasy.

About this story, I think it covered lots of these problems, but failed to mention the customs related bureaucracy in central Asia, I know people who have some experience of doing business in some of those countries. According to what they told me, without bribe you can't take anything in and out from those countries.
While in, bribe will be routine part of your business, if you keep paying your business may be safe for a while, but each time amount of bribe will keep increasing, and one day, it will exceed your benefit, than you are pissed off.
What you would do next, will you stay without profit or try to leave the country? If you decided to leave it won’t be easy either, because you have to pay even higher bribe to take your belongings, seal your business, if you disagree, your bribes will be used against you, as an evidence of bribery and corruption and you will end of losing everything.
If you resist, yourself will end up in jail, without hearing, investigation, while your belongings are confiscated. Therefore Mr. Kazi and Ms. Clinton, what you guys are saying is the ideal situation, I wish it would match with the ground reality.
Unless it doesn’t, I suggest you to get with something serious, it’s not something that you can plan and implement from Washington, but is much more complicated. So don’t waste your valuable time, energy and resources to make something happen, which is impossible.
In Response

by: Aftab Kazi from: Washington, DC
August 06, 2011 06:16
Dr. Bluent, Rightly said that the idea appears a fantasy at this stage. However, we hope that in two to three decades circumstances will be different,. just as various CA countries are introducing new rules and let us be optimistic that it will ensure some change. Of course, Secretary Clinton used the statement rhetorically during her visit to India. Otherwise Indians also know that they are too far away from the region without direct links with CA, which will not be possible without Chinese or Pakistani cooperation -perhaps, another fantasy. I agree with everything you have said about corruption, particularly foreign businessmen experiences. I have personally witnessed scenarios that you have described in some countries. As, I see the problem, it is a part of the process in societies which did not have a middle class prior to independence. And, most new middle classes often emerge from earlier corruption and overtime stabilize in cross-generations. In my opinion, it might take approximately 50 to 70 years before new middle classes in CA societies could function efficiently. Concurrent corruption seems transitional to me, albeit it will continue for a long time.
At this moment, I hope the U.S. government understands, that we must support the ongoing economic, political and judicial reforms being introduced in these countries, which over time gradually will become societal norms. Ongoing reforms in CA countries and their impact do not see any coverage in Western world and has been overshadowed by our idealistic overnight democratization ideals. Leadership as I have known in these countries understand the problems that you have described. They are also hopeful that in time their resolve to reformation will help overcome these problems. Temporal situations can only be perceived with hopes and positive feelings. With respectful regards.
In Response

by: Hassan from: Pakistan
August 18, 2011 05:24
Dear Bulnet, Do you know the volume of trade between all these countries? Do you the volume of foreign investments in these countries you are talking about?? Please first do research and than comment. There are millions of those you call "idiot" to go to those regions with truck loaded goods or with briefcase full of dollars.

by: Kruger from: Tokyo
August 09, 2011 00:11
This is not a fantasy. It is happening. See the list of ongoing projects of the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program to rebuild key transport corridors linking Central Asia with the rest of Eurasia: and maps of the rapidly developing corridors: . There are many challenges ahead including improving trade facilitation along the corridors, but progress is tangible.
In Response

by: Aftab Kazi from: Washington, DC
August 16, 2011 07:35
Mr. Kruger, CAREC has several plans but mostly on paper. ADB has been spending some monies on transportation infrastructure. However, it is within countries or in between selected countries. When Dr. Bluent spoke about new Silk Road as fantasy, he actually meant the long road from China to all the way to Europe, fully operating in a geopolitical sense and I agreed to his explanation of fantasy. Imagine the cost of construction, maintenance, and intra and interstate relationships between several countries, particularly misunderstandings about who will be investing in such a giant or several giant projects. However, in fact we are talking about several Silk Roads. Forget about the international ones, we have not been able to complete the Ring Road in Afghanistan over the last ten years and so. Under ECO and SCO too much talk about the north-south corridor through Karachi and Gawadar, and land route from Kashgar to Arabian Sea has not materialized yet, despite the fact that such treaties were signed between China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan during late 1990s and even am ambassadorial trip was arranged to show diplomats the convenience of this route. Even that route has become a fantasy. There are many discussions and statements about new Silk Roads on many websites including CAREC and ADB. However, I must insist that some parts of the Silk Roads can be operationable and some are already operating under some political and geopolitical arrangements. Look at the ongoing trade from Karachi/Gawadar to Central Asia all the way to Astana, starting through Jalalabad, Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, Termez, to Samarqand, Tashkent and Astana. Kabul to Dushanbe route under this arrangement is also operating. But that is a small area compared to the large talk about the giant new Silk Road, such one that operated once during the days of Chingiz Khan.
With respectful regards for all of our readers.