The ambitious goal of creating a "new Silk Road" on the basis of military supply lines through Central Asia appears to be continuing to make progress with the U.S. government. S. Frederick Starr, the head of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington and one of the more tireless proponents of this idea, has released a new report (pdf) on the subject, and reports that CENTCOM and the State Department are coordinating a plan:
Over the previous year the “Afghan Futures Working Group” at the U.S. Army’s Central Command (Centcom) in Tampa had been analyzing all the several dozen road and transport projects that the U.S. government had undertaken since 2002. This “mapping and gapping” exercise had as its goal to identify what had been accomplished and what remained to be done, in order of priority. To the surprise of no one, the Working Group found a disorganized series of projects lacking general leadership and coordination. The findings of this study, prepared under General James N. Mattis, Centcom’s energetic Commander, have now been shared with the State Department, which will present them at ministry-level trilateral meetings between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States on February 22-24.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) also has been involved, holding its own conference in November 2010:
At this conference Admiral [James] Stavridis, now head of the U.S. European Command, again affirmed the view that ”we will not deliver security in Afghanistan solely from the barrel of a gun,” and endorsed the Modern Silk Road strategy for being comprehensive in scope and “a combination of international, interagency and private/public [initiatives]…We in the military are there to support [the Afghans] as we execute this comprehensive approach. That's what we’re trying to accomplish with this Silk Road oncept.”
Starr plays down somewhat the role that the Northern Distribution Network (the U.S. military-run logistics route carrying military cargo from Europe to Afghanistan through Central Asia) itself would play, saying it should just be a "component":
Does NDN have a future beyond the current U.S. military “surge”? Probably not, but it could be reconfigured to become a channel for private commerce, a component of the web of transport corridors that will connect to and through Afghanistan.
But I wonder if, among the military, the NDN element of this strategy is getting more attention.
Characteristically, Starr is generous with the superlatives:
By toppling the Taliban regime in 2001–2, the U.S. accomplished what the collapse of the U.S.S.R. failed to do, namely, to open the old southern border of the Soviet Union to transport and trade via Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, and beyond. The subsequent establishment of a trade-friendly government in Kabul completed the process, opening further potential corridors through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran to the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe. The impact of these epochal developments is bound to be felt in every part of Eurasia, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but it will be centered on Afghanistan itself.
The reopening all these age-old transit routes across Afghanistan is the single greatest achievement of U.S. foreign policy in the new millennium.
Emphasis added. Later he calls the opening up of trade routes around Afghanistan "arguably the most transformative development taking place on the Eurasian land mass today."
I'm still skeptical of this scheme. Despite Starr's insistence that Afghanistan's role in the original Silk Road suggests that it is a natural trade route, I can't really think of a single pair of significant potential trading partners for whom Afghanistan is the most logical transit route.
But that's me saying that. If this military disagrees, they have a LOT of money they can devote to making it happen.