Two panels this month, one in Washington and the other in Istanbul, illustrate the broad gap in thinking on Central Asia between foreign policy leaders in Washington and mid-level practitioners more closely linked to the region.
"The US must take initiative to create a long-term strategy for the region. It should bring the New Silk Road to the region, because if we do not, others [Russia, China] will fill the void," Adib Farhadi, a visiting Afghan scholar at the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute (CACI) at Johns Hopkins University, said, summarizing the sentiments of his fellow panelists in Washington.
Just a few days earlier in Istanbul, however, one panelist derided Washington's New Silk Road concept – unveiled by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in mid-2011 – to widespread agreement: "The New Silk Road was a strategy, then an initiative, now I guess it is a vision. It should be called an illusion and ignored. It was created by outsiders without reference to what is going on in the region."
The Atlantic Council and CACI jointly hosted the Washington panel, entitled "The New Silk Road Project: A New Strategy for Afghanistan and Central-South Asia," on October 9. The previous week, the US Congress-chartered Hollings Center for International Dialogue gathered 30 policy experts and development practitioners from Central Asia, Afghanistan, Turkey and the West for a dialogue on "Central Asia's Regional Challenges." The Hollings Center event on October 3-5 was held under the Chatham House Rule, thus participants’ names have been withheld.
The Atlantic-CACI panel in Washington featured two Afghans, four Americans, and no Central Asians. All shared a vision of regional trade and transport bringing stability, prosperity, and some form of victory, or at least closure, to the US intervention in Afghanistan. An audience of about 100 from the State and Defense departments, think tanks, intelligence contractors, risk consultants, and diplomats heard their arguments and full-throated advocacy for the New Silk Road strategy.
But no-shows and non-answers from the panel frustrated New Silk Road proponent and
CACI director Frederick Starr, who moderated the event. At one point, Starr asked the panelists to provide one example of an exciting New Silk Road-related success. The first panelist asked to be skipped. Craig Steffensen, an Asian Development Bank representative and former official for its Central Asia Regional Economic Corridors (CAREC) in Almaty, said CAREC "has done some, I think, useful things," then diverted to an anecdote involving Thailand. Afghan Central Bank Governor Noorullah Delwari raised the promise – though not results – of mining to spark regional transport and trade. No one offered a success story.
At the Washington event, New Silk Road enthusiasts blamed the State Department's dallying and insufficient spending as the main barrier to the project’s success. Starr criticized State for not sending a panelist, and pushed the Pentagon’s James I. Bullion to admit that the mandate for his Task Force on Business and Stability Operations in the region ends in 2014, when US troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan. Starr framed this as evidence of a lack of seriousness behind the policy by the US.
By contrast, participants in the Hollings Center's dialogue in Istanbul were overwhelmingly pessimistic about the prospects for broad regional cooperation.
"Each of the major foreign powers in the region – Russia, China, and the United States – have competing regional integration projects, and in many instances, their interests and intentions are contradictory," noted one panelist. The Russia-led Customs Union is trying to reestablish trade and transport policies in the region to boost Moscow's interests, he said. Alternatively, China's Shanghai Cooperation Organization appears designed to maximize Beijing's economic access to the region.
Holling's panelists agreed the New Silk Road project, which envisions open economic relations among the Central Asian states, Afghanistan, as well as all of their neighbors, contradicts realities on the ground. These participants in Istanbul described uneven development across states in the region, and the propensity of businesses in each to focus on developing links with larger foreign markets while ignoring their neighbors. One even wondered provocatively, "Is Central Asia even a region anymore?"
One Istanbul participant concluded: "The West's policy toward Central Asia has nothing to do with Central Asia. It is a Russia policy, a China policy, an Iran policy, an Af/Pak policy. Central Asia and the realities and barriers to achieving Western policy goals in the region are not even considered in the process."
Myles G. Smith is an analyst on Central Asia based in Washington, DC.