As the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks passed, Americans are searching for a new narrative to understand their country’s role in the world. But far more than declared principles or personalities, America’s place in the world is shaped by what it does in other places. Especially overseas, societies judge us by our actions rather than our words.
October 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-UK invasion of Afghanistan - the first major undertaking of the “War on Terror.” The Obama administration was quick to jettison the term “War on Terror” upon entering office. But more importantly, it has begun to take a series of concrete steps that genuinely constitute a new narrative for the region where that war began: “New Silk Road.” It is a decade overdue, but New Silk Road is more than just a re-branding of the “War on Terror,” and more than a hodge-podge of announcements to cover American tracks as it begins a drawdown from Afghanistan. It is nothing less than a new grand strategy for the U.S. both for Central-South Asia and beyond. It re-frames much of U.S. policy as a two-way street of shared responsibilities and mutual benefit.
In many respects, New Silk Road is the obvious approach that should have been executed a decade ago: locally owned, private sector enabling and regionally focused. Afghanistan may remain the poorest country in Eurasia for many years to come, but it stands a better chance of prospering as the “Asian Roundabout” - a crossroads for Euro-Asian commerce - than as a permanent American protectorate. As Hillary Clinton recently said in Chennai, the New Silk Road would “not be a single thoroughfare, but an international web and network of economic and transit connections.” Substituting a self-sufficient economic model for military occupation is the only way to achieve the “transition dividend” the administration is hoping for.
No region in the world more personifies the overlapping of schizophrenic identity and brute geography. From the post-Soviet republics called the “Stans” to the arbitrary Durand Line vaguely defining the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (and even the Radcliffe Line that marks the Indo-Pak border but splits the populous Punjab), Central-South Asia’s borders are at best arbitrary and at worst perpetual cause for pointless belligerence. I have never met a Central Asian citizen who prefers rigid borders over access to a market on the other side of one.
Appropriately then, all of the anchor projects currently being funded and considered in the New Silk Road process involve regional resource corridors, meaning they are focused more on physically connecting oil, gas and minerals such as copper and lithium to markets irrespective of which political borders they lie within or across. The TAPI pipeline could carry natural gas from Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea coast all the way through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. A national railway system for Afghanistan, already supported by CENTCOM, is already under construction and would help transport Afghanistan’s abundant mineral wealth to the emerging markets around it. And the CASA-1000 project will transfer electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan. The New Silk Road, then, is both North-South as well as East-West.
For a country whose politics are as uncertain as Afghanistan, embedding the country into regional infrastructural and economic frameworks is more than just a peripheral measure on the road to coherent national sovereignty; it is the foundation on which future sovereignty depends. State-building is not an end in itself, it is the result of the capacity accrued through road-building, city-building, market-building, and supply-chain building.
In a world of scarce natural resources and investors seeking high returns, even poor and landlocked countries aren’t ignored by markets for long. Witness how Mongolia and Zambia have become thriving destinations for natural resource companies and private equity funds. China has become the single largest investor in Afghanistan, with American troops wisely guarding the Chinese-operated Aynak copper mine in Logar province. This could be the new normal on the New Silk Road for several decades, even after American troops are replaced by Afghans and when countries like India, Iran and Turkey ramp up their financial stakes in the country as well.
Remember that the New Silk Road is not just a regional strategy but an inter-regional one. It was the 19th century German geographer Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen who coined the term “Silk Road,” and this December the city of Bonn plays host to the 10th anniversary of the first major Afghanistan conference held there in 2011. Within a decade Europe might be importing natural gas all the way from Turkmenistan via the Nabucco pipeline. Whether under the guise of NATO or the EU, which has already funded important rail and road projects through the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, Europe has a major stake in the New Silk Road process. It can export investment and technical expertise eastward in lieu of only importing opium and cheap Chinese goods along the asphalt and iron corridors winding their way westward through Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
All of this makes Central Asia a reconstruction project that belongs more to the nations surrounding it in concentric circles than to the U.S. - as it should be. America shouldn’t be taking the lead financially, only diplomatically. Who else can convene Europeans, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, diasporas, multilateral agencies and private banks?
Precisely this is how the New Silk Road roadmap is meant to play out in the coming months. Beginning at the U.N. General Assembly this month in New York, Obama officials are taking promising Afghan figures such as foreign minister Rassoul, the new economic advisor Sham Bathija, and mining/finance minister Wahidullah Shahrani on an extended road show to meetings of the World Bank, IMF, International Finance Corporation, NATO, Asian Development Bank and G-20 - and perhaps most importantly, private investors. The goal is to mobilize risk guarantees, public-private partnerships and fresh investments to ramp-up and manage Afghanistan’s key mineral industries, agriculture, and small-scale manufacturing. Istanbul also plays host in November to another pillar of the effort, namely political reconciliation, which America needs more allies than ever to bring about as its military footprint diminishes.
Afghanistan has spent several decades falling further backwards than any nation in history, but there are now promising signs for a better future a decade after the “War on Terror” began. Indeed, the New Silk Road is already quite visibly the inevitable fate of the Eurasian mega-continent, the world’s geopolitical center of gravity. American policy-makers are smart to finally get on the right side of History.