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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.
"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