Senior Airman Brett Clashman, 376th Air Expeditionary Wing
General William Fraser, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, visits the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan while on a tour around Central Asia, October 2012
The U.S.'s top military logistics officer, just returned from a trip around Central Asia, has enthusiastically endorsed the notion that American military supply routes in the region can be transformed into a civilian "New Silk Road" after the U.S. pulls its forces out of Afghanistan.
In an interview with American Forces Press Service, General William Fraser added a senior military voice to the apparently re-emergent argument that the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) will act as the foundation for a transformation of trade in Central Asia:
Recognizing that U.S. shipments will diminish over time, leaders in nations supporting the NDN see the routes established to support the war effort in Afghanistan as a path to economic progress, Fraser noted. “I think the NDN is opening up opportunities for the future that these countries can capitalize on,” he said.
Nations are working together in unprecedented ways as a result of NDN agreements and exploring ways to streamline their import and export procedures to encourage cross-border commerce.
“We are already seeing some of that,” Fraser said. “As they look forward to the future, these countries know that the military is not going to be doing things at the same level that we have been for a long time. So they are looking for ways to capitalize on what has happened as a result of the Northern Distribution Network.”
Ambassador Dennise Mathieu, Fraser’s foreign policy advisor who accompanied him on the trip, said these efforts fit into the State Department’s vision of a “New Silk Road” that offers new potential in one of the least economically integrated areas of the world.
The goal is to reconnect economies that had been torn apart by decades of war and rivalry, helping restore commercial bonds among some of the world’s fastest-growing economies that sit at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
“The idea is that you can build on the links that have already been established in an economic way,” Mathieu said.
One wonders which Central Asian leaders Fraser talked to who support this view. Kazakhstan seems to have high hopes for this notion -- or at least in getting U.S. help in developing their regional trade. But research into how the NDN has affected regional trade has come up with a pessimistic picture, finding that the NDN "has done little to improve the efficiency of regional trade."
This blog has exhaustively covered the arguments against believing in the notion of a "New Silk Road" through Afghanistan, as the U.S. government envisions it. Another voice of skepticism was raised this week by longtime Central Asia analyst Roger Kangas of the U.S. National Defense University, speaking at Georgetown University (on which more later), who directly addressed the notion that the NDN would lead to a New Silk Road. Central Asian governments are afraid of what open borders might bring in from an unstable Afghanistan (like crime, drugs, Islamists) and mistrust their neighbors, he said (emphasizing that his views were not the official U.S. government position):
Yes, the NDN is working... but to take us out of the equation, and to take the Afghan centerpiece out of the equation, to make it a true, organic product of regional economic dynamics -- that's asking a lot.
The question that remains unanswered is, do the State Department and military officials who have been touting this view actually believe it? Or is it simply a rhetorical fig leaf, disguising the lack of a real plan for Afghanistan and Central Asia once the U.S. forces depart? Either these officials are naive, or misleading us, and neither thought should be especially comforting to Central Asians.