Before the "New Silk Road" was ever official U.S. policy, there was talk among Washington wonks and U.S. policymakers of transforming the military Northern Distribution Network -- the system of supply routes the Pentagon uses to get its equipment to Afghanistan -- into a civilian, commercial trade network. But when the U.S. State Department rolled out its New Silk Road Initiative last year, there was never any connection made between that idea and the NDN.
That looks like it's changing, however. In a speech last week, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, made that connection explicit:
[W]e should not overlook the economic potential of the NDN. The existing infrastructure and transit routes used to transport military cargo can and should be used by the private sector to continue trade across the region, where there is ample opportunity for growth. The economic potential of a more open and integrated region – full of untapped human and natural resources – is virtually unlimited.
And at an event last week at the Open Society Foundations Washington office, Blake's deputy Lynne Tracy made the same point, calling the NDN a "proof of principle" for the New Silk Road.
The reasons for skepticism of the New Silk Road Initiative have been amply discussed on this blog. They include the fact that it ignores Iran, that none of Afghanistan's neighbors trust one another, and that Afghanistan is manifestly unsuited for being a transit hub. The consensus that has emerged among Central Asia watchers in Washington is that the New Silk Road Initiative is primarily a rhetorical device to make it look like the U.S. isn't planning to simply cut and run from Afghanistan after 2014.
So the New Silk Road idea (at least the State Department version of it) fails on its own merits. And what of the NDN acting as a proof of principle? The Open Society Foundation just released a new report by Graham Lee, discussing that very notion, and concludes that the NDN has done little to boost regional trade:
There is little evidence to suggest that the NDN is increasing regional cooperation, and in some cases, it may be causing rises in border fees. Indirectly, the NDN also appears to be stimulating corruption in Central Asia. It has done little to improve the efficiency of regional trade.
So why is the State Department now pushing this line?