The United States should take advantage of the creation of the Northern Distribution Network, a newly established military resupply route, to create a "modern Silk Road" that uses international trade to encourage the economic and political development of Afghanistan and Central Asia, experts at a leading Washington think tank say.
Transnational trade will be key to Afghanistan becoming a healthy, self-sufficient country, but competing interests among states surrounding Afghanistan make it impossible to implement a coordinated transportation strategy for the region, according to a series of reports recently released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and coordinated by Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program, and Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the Transnational Threats Project.
The US military's establishment of the Northern Distribution Network, a series of commercial transportation routes through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan, could act as the catalyst to create a longer-term series of trade routes, Kuchins and Sanderson contend. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
"The Northern Distribution Network has given the United States a unique and ephemeral opportunity to develop the Modern Silk Road (MSR). The MSR, in turn, is critical for the long-term economic future of Afghanistan and the surrounding regions. If this opportunity is ignored, everything the United States will have achieved in Afghanistan will be short-lived, and instability will likely remain a permanent fixture in the heart of Eurasia," according to one of the reports, titled The Northern Distribution Network and the Modern Silk Road: Planning for Afghanistan's Future.
The NDN currently consists of two main spurs: the "southern" route, starting at the Georgian port of Poti, going overland to Baku, then by ferry to Aqtau, Kazakhstan, and forward through Uzbekistan to Afghanistan; and the "northern" route, traversing Latvia, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Military logistics experts interviewed by the project coordinators believe that the NDN has the capacity to carry at least 500 containers per week, up from the roughly 300 per week it currently carries, and hope that, eventually, 30 percent of the supplies bound for Afghanistan will travel via the NDN, with an even split between the southern and northern spurs. The bulk of supplies to US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are delivered via Pakistan.
The NDN also offers geopolitical benefits to the United States, the reports' authors pointed out. "While the creation of the NDN was motivated by the US military's immediate logistical needs, its establishment nonetheless offers a unique opportunity for Washington to further broader strategic objectives," the report states. In particular, it offers a chance to increase military ties with Georgia and Azerbaijan. While the transport costs of the NDN are about 2.5 times the cost of bringing in goods through Pakistan, and the southern route is especially expensive given the need to switch from rail to ferry back to rail, the cost is outweighed by strategic benefits, argued Kuchins.
"There is an important political rationale for the southern route; ... helping strengthen the ties of the states involved with the United States, particularly in the wake of the Georgia war," he said at a January 7 event at CSIS to formally release the reports.
While Georgia and Azerbaijan are broadly interested in building a relationship with the West, and thus are likely to be more reliable partners in the NDN, the countries of Central Asia, in particular Uzbekistan, tend to be more interested in immediate benefits. "They [Uzbek officials] want to see much more happening on local procurement and us being more flexible on that," Kuchins said. "They want to see much more attention paid to the development of infrastructure that links Central Asia to Afghanistan, and they want to be involved in building it."
The reluctance of Central Asian states to cooperate is compounded by the perception that US policy in the region is "overmilitarized and short-term," given that the Obama administration has expressed an intention to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in 2011, Kuchins said.
"Any signal that the regional states have that we are short-timers reduces their incentives to cooperate with us. That's obvious. And given the plus-up [i.e. the surge in US troops to Afghanistan], they realize they have more leverage with us," he said. "Fundamentally, we will fail if we are not able to redirect that and really have a new strategy for Afghanistan."
Turkmenistan currently does not allow military cargo to pass through its territory, but if it were to become part of the NDN, costs of the southern route would decrease (though still not to the level of the northern route). Thus, it is worth continuing to press the Turkmen government to allow access, though that is unlikely because of Ashgabat's dedication to maintaining its neutral status, Sanderson said.
Iran is the most tantalizing possibility for the NDN, given the short distance between its port of Chabahar and an Afghan road from the Iranian border constructed by the Indian military. Obvious political considerations preclude Iranian participation in the NDN now, but that could change, Kuchins suggested. "When you talk to the logistics guys at [US Central Command, US Transportation Command and the Defense Logistics Agency] their eyes brighten when they look at the possibilities of supplying forces in Afghanistan through the port of Chabahar in the south," he said.
The genesis of the CSIS NDN project was a conversation between Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of US Central Command, and Arnaud de Borchegrave, director of the think tank's Transnational Threats Project, and an editor-at-large for the Washington Times and United Press International, Sanderson said.
The project is funded by a grant from the Waring and Carmen Partridge Foundation, a small family foundation based in the US Virgin Islands, where the Partridges live. Financial disclosure documents from the foundation show that its donations go mainly to community projects in the Virgin Islands and on the schools and universities Waring Partridge attended, with little previous involvement in international or strategic issues. Partridge, a former AT&T executive who also served in the US government in several capacities, did not respond to an email from EurasiaNet by press time. A CSIS spokesman also did not respond to queries by press time.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.