Might the Northern Distribution Network -- the transport of U.S. and NATO military goods through Central Asia en route to Afghanistan -- blossom into a "modern Silk Road" that brings prosperity and stability to Central Asia? It's a theory that is either far-reaching and visionary, or completely unrealistic and possibly dangerous, depending on your point of view. But according to the National Journal (via Steve LeVine) the idea has gone, in a few short months, from think tank project to apparent approval by the new commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus:
CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus wants to explore an ambitious regional development strategy aiming to turn Afghanistan from an economic backwater into a hub for trans-Eurasian trade, according to three of his civilian advisers....
"There's a tremendous amount of synergy here," said Petraeus' deputy political adviser, Lewis Elbinger, a State Department foreign service officer on loan to Central Command. "We should get the whole of [the] U.S. government to align behind this project, [and] we're working with our friends on the Afghan side." Elbinger added that he hoped the two governments would announce the plan as official policy at a Kabul conference on July 20.
Petraeus was confirmed at the new Afghanistan commander on Wednesday, and in his hearing the issue of the Northern Distribution Network did not come up. EurasiaNet has highlighted some of the potential problems with the NDN, such as its significant potential to abet corruption in Uzbekistan.
The bigger problem would seem to be that Afghanistan just doesn't seem like a very natural trade route. It is full of mountains and has some of the worst transportation infrastructure on the planet. And it's not really on the way from anything to anything else. If you want to transport goods between Central Asia and the rest of the world, why wouldn't you go instead south through Turkmenistan and Iran, or east through Kazakhstan and China, or north through Russia, or west through Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan and across the Caspian? All of those routes have the advantage of being relatively flat and taking advantage of infrastructure that, while it's not great, is a lot better than what Afghanistan has. The NDN seems to be working well enough, in spite of some hiccups, for getting U.S. cargo to Afghanistan. But to extend it beyond that doesn't seem to make a lot of sense. (Recall that, in the original Silk Road(s), Afghanistan played a somewhat insignificant part.)
One source LeVine talked to suggested that this was another desperate attempt, like the trillion-dollars-of-lithium "news" of a few weeks ago, to justify a continuing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan:
As with the stories a few weeks ago about Afghanistan have abundant mineral wealth, it seems at this time there's an interest in building up the case for why we're in Afghanistan. Everything that can suggest benefits will accrue from this adventure is being presented. I suspect that this is one reason that Starr's proposal is receiving more widespread attention than it has earlier.
But, sensible idea or not, Petraeus's support for the "modern Silk Road" idea could mean some dramatic developments ahead for Central Asia. Stay tuned.