South Asia Research and Analysis Studies

Afghan End Game and the Modern Silk Road
Alam Rind

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent visit to the region has propagated the concept of a “Modern Silk Road” as an instrument to recover Afghanistan from extremism. In Tajikistan she said, that the integration of war ravaged Afghanistan into regional economy would be critical to its recovery.

This concept is rooted in the fact that widespread deprivation plays an important role in the Taliban insurgency. In Afghanistan 40% of the population is unemployed and about 53% live below the poverty line. Daniel Markey had reported that in Pakistan, Taliban mostly are drawn from Afghan refugee camps and extremist madrassas in the tribal areas. They are uneducated and poor with fewer other employment prospects. They join Taliban groups to earn a living and to enhance their social status. The relationship between poverty and extremism reinforces the idea that economic activity in shape of Modern Silk Road along with military operations in Afghanistan will make up an effective counterinsurgency campaign. It will also serve as a key ingredient for long term stability in the region.
With 2014 as a deadline for the pullout of the major chunk of Americans forces from Afghanistan, they are hectically working to realize their covert objectives in the region that is to strengthen their grip on the Central Asian resources. The concept of Modern Silk Roads and peace in Afghanistan has been interwoven to achieve this objective. The only thing that needs to be seen is that the arrangement accrues equitable responsibilities and benefits for the regional states or otherwise. Istanbul conference held on November 2, 2011 had regional economic cooperation on its agenda. Interestingly besides USA and UK, India also participated in the event. That clearly indicates that USA wants India to have greater role in the post 2014 Afghanistan. The new Transit Trade agreement with Afghanistan allows her trucks to carry Afghan good to Wagah border for further export to India and the proposition to grant her the Most Favored Nation status are the steps that reflect change in Pakistan’s stance towards her arch rival. It is also speculated that American sponsored arrangements may create hurdles in assured and uninterrupted flow of energy resources from Central Asia to China.
China has already established land links with Europe. The first route is based on existing Trans-Siberian Railway running from Vladivostok in Eastern Russia to Moscow that connects into Eastern Europe and to Rotterdam. In January 2008, China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland and Germany implemented this route and agreed to create conditions for regular train service between Europe and Asia. The train covered the distance of 10,000 km in 10 days as against 40 day via sea. Similarly, a train was launched from Chongquig to Port Antwerp in Belgium in May 2011. It traversed the distance of 11,179 km in 16 days as against 36 days via sea. Nevertheless, Chinese would like to have access to Central Asian states through Afghanistan also. Any hurdle in materializing of the same will adversely effect US-China relations.
Another imbalance may crop up if India is given an out of proportion role in Afghanistan. In that case Pakistan will be confronted with an uncomfortable situation of being sandwiched between hostile Afghanistan and India. It will also be extremely difficult for Pakistan to extend transit trade rights to India while core disputes between the two countries continue to persist. More so, if US-China relations grow bitter Pakistan would be in an awkward situation. The arrangement where India is given greater role and access to Central Asian resources will facilitate her rapid growth. That will help nurture India as a counter weight to China in a shorter timeframe. That certainly won’t be to the liking of Chinese.
If Americans want to succeed in their quest to bring stability to Afghanistan and the region as a whole while exercising certain degree of control on Central Asian resources, they need to address the concerns of states contingent to Afghanistan. Friction between USA, China and Russia has the potential to push the region into uncertainty and disorder for a long time to come. Similarly, differences between nuclear armed Pakistan and India also needs to be resolved if the Modern Silk Road is to reach Delhi. This complex milieu can be solved only if right of each stakeholder is acknowledged and principle based decisions are taken to steer the region towards prosperity. The first step should be an amicable resolution of Kashmir dispute. That will open the gate way to Central Asian states for India and will set the whole region on the road to prosperity. Undoubtedly, prosperity will help squalling extremism from Afghanistan.