By Sreemati Ganguli
Afghanistan is being focused in a number of Silk Road initiatives as the bridgehead of inter-regional trade cooperation between South and Central Asia; a welcome change from its stigma of being the centre of insecurity for the last thirty years.
The first such initiative by the US to promote the broad idea of a ‘revival of the fundamental basis for the Silk Road’ in the Central and South Asian region was promoted during former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s visit to the region in October 2005. For the US, such a revival will create new areas of cooperation like trade, transport, energy, democracy and communications among the states of Central and South Asia. It will expand also relations among these states and Europe, Turkey, Japan, NATO and OSCE and, in the long run, help create a fully integrated Greater Central Asia-South Asia region.
The CAREC-ADB initiative is another project of transport corridors along Eurasia to promote regional cooperation. The programme gathers together the five Central Asian states, as well as Afghanistan, Mongolia and Azerbaijan and six international financial institutions (the Asian Development Bank, the EBRD, the IMF, the IDB, the WB and the UNDP).
In an interesting development, NATO termed its project to provide high-speed and effective satellite channel access to the Internet and to the European Scientific and Educational Networks in the region as the ‘Virtual Silk Highway’. The beneficiary states are Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
In September 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle co-chaired the New Silk Road Ministerial, hosted by the German Mission in New York City on September 22, 2011. It was a follow-up of what Secretary Clinton outlined in a speech in Chennai (http://1.usa.gov/rhyHB5), India, on 20 July, about her vision of a ‘New Silk Road’ linking markets in South and Central Asia, with Afghanistan at its heart. The idea is that ‘lasting stability and security go hand in hand with economic opportunity’ and so, an Afghanistan with better economic partnership with its neighbours would become the reason for enhanced security and stability for the region covering Central and South Asia as a whole.
In the post-withdrawal, post-2014 phase, the promotion of Silk Road initiatives projects an alternative scenario for the US, regional countries and, most importantly, for Afghanistan. For the US, the strategic dilemma remains how to engage in Afghanistan and in the wider region on a long-term basis. The Silk Road strategy offers a better alternative as it provides the option of economic engagement with a regional dimension – it engages the US with not only Afghanistan, but also with South Asia and Central Asia – two regions with enormous economic potential in terms of trade and energy. This well-conceived strategy also shows another other face of the US – cooperative, not interventionist.
For the South Asian region, the initiatives offer another opportunity, apart from SAARC, to cooperate in areas of trade and transport. A region where past memories of partition and present politics of distrust are the main impediments to cooperation and development, the Silk Road initiatives offer prospects for a better future. The historical metaphor of Silk Road, which stands for regional and inter-regional cooperation, might help the countries of South Asia to go beyond historical baggage.
The security situation in Afghanistan is evolving – there is insecurity in the present situation, and uncertainty about the future. The main challenge is as much to ensure peace and development, as to implement both simultaneously. The successful accomplishment of this complex task in Afghanistan demands the involvement of regional and global powers, as the making of the current situation has had the fair, or rather unfair, share of regional and global power rivalries. The Silk Road initiatives offer such a scenario for cooperation. First, Afghanistan would be the centre of trade and transport corridors and energy pipelines linking South and Central Asia, leading to China in the east and Turkey to the west, and then eventually to Europe. Second, development in the areas of national and regional infrastructure would help economic reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and, in the long-term, political stabilization. Economic benefits would, hopefully, help ensure the active involvement of regional countries as stakeholders in the process of development and not as powerbrokers in a new geopolitical game.
In the Istanbul Conference of November 2011, the so-called ‘Heart of Asia’ countries like China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the five Central Asian States reaffirmed their commitment to a secure and stable Afghanistan; the most vitally needed imperative to bring lasting security to the region. And the Silk Road initiatives have the potential to transform Afghanistan into the ‘heart’ of trans-regional cooperation in the future from a centre of geopolitical rivalries.
Fellow, Department of History, University of Calcutta
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