28 May 2012: Mariam Safi, Insight on Conflict's local correspondent for Afghanistan, looks at how the revival of the country's ancient role as a trade and transport hub for South and Central Asia can contribute to a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.

“We believe a stable and prosperous Afghanistan can only be envisioned in a stable and prosperous region,” stated Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Speaking at the second Bonn Conference on Afghanistan in December 2011, this statement correctly asserts that stability in Afghanistan and stability in the region, are two mutually-reinforcing pillars. Thus the future of the region is dependent upon Afghanistan’s ability to meet its state-building measures and move beyond what has been called the decade of ‘transition,’ to the decade of ‘transformation’ (between the years 2014 and 2024).

The Pamir Highway on the Silk Road, Afghanistan The Pamir Highway on the Silk Road, Afghanistan (Photo Credit: Stefano Girolimetto)

The prospects for a stable and prosperous Afghanistan, following the withdrawal of NATO-Isaf forces in the post-2014 period, will largely depend upon Afghanistan’s ability to sustain economic growth, provide goods and services to its people, reduce its dependence upon international aid, and realise its natural resource deposits.

Thus an Afghanistan connected to the South and Central Asian region through the revitalisation of the ancient Silk Road, will not only help re-establish Afghanistan as a land-bridge, but also help sustain its economy by  facilitating and connecting the transit of goods and energy across the region.

Revival of an old idea

Afghanistan as a connector and bridge in the South and Central Asian region is not a new idea
However, Afghanistan as a connector and bridge in the South and Central Asian region is not a new idea; its roots are grounded in an ancient highway that connected the eastern with the western world, known as the Ancient Silk Road.

Due to its geographical position Afghanistan was centrally located on the Silk Road, along which goods were transported from Beijing to Bactria (known today as the Balkh province in Afghanistan), and then headed out towards Turkey and the commercial ports of Europe. Balkh was considered the “cross center and convergence of all branches and courses” of the 11000km ancient highway. The Silk Road was therefore not only a trade and transit route for tradesmen, it was also a symbol of “collective security and global peace in the ancient centuries,” for it connected three empires - the Han in China, Kushanid Empire in Afghanistan and Roman Empire in the Western hemisphere.

The 'New Silk Route'

Although the revival of the Silk Road has been discussed for decades by those travelling it, as well as by others such as the United Nations and the USA, it only came to official formation in the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2011, at which the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the ‘New Silk Route’ initiative with her counterpart, the Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. This New Silk Road would once again create trade routes between Asia and the West, facilitated by the establishment of modern highways, rail links and energy pipelines.

Certainly, such an initiative is part of the wider transition program envisioned by the US, which has already shifted its focus from stabilisation projects to investment in Afghanistan. It is also arguably a process intended on assisting the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan, by creating a viable environment ultimately giving way to “spurring growth, and integrating Afghanistan into the economy of South and Central Asia.”

Increasing importance in trade and transit

Afghanistan has begun to regain its primary position as a trade and transit hub
Certainly, despite an enduring conflict, weak rule of law, corruption, a doubtful security transition process, an ambiguous peace process, and 11 years of nation-building, Afghanistan has begun to regain its primary position as a trade and transit hub.

To this effect, it has already commenced infrastructural rehabilitation in all sectors, including   railways, highways, energy sources, natural resource discoveries, and trade and transit. Illustrative of these achievements are the Afghanistan linkages in regional forums, such as the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan (RECCA), the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), the South Asian Association of Regional Countries (SAARC), the Shanghai Cooperation Organizations (SCO), and others.

Afghanistan has also worked to consolidate its infrastructural build-up, serving to reflect its  economic growth, its potential to connect Central Asia with Southern Asia and vice versa, and its capacity to provide mineral wealth and become an energy source to the region; whilst on the international market, it serves to demonstrate its vital importance to ensuring stability in the region.

Regional assistance will be crucial

Afghanistan will increasingly require more regional assistance
Nonetheless, today’s reality is that the region continues to be primarily held hostage by political and strategic dissonance rather than full integration, conditions which do not lend themselves to success on the new Silk Road initiative.

Thus in the post-2014 period, Afghanistan will increasingly require more regional assistance, for regional cooperation rather than international involvement, with regards to military and wasted development assistance, will prove to be the ultimate beacon of progress for Afghanistan. Such an approach must be assessed, analysed and further developed upon through various regional forums, if it is to achieve greater connectivity in the region.

For more information see Dr. Aziz, Ahmad Panjsheri. (2005). Afghanistan and the Silk Road, Afghan Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Maiwand Printing House, Kabul, Afghanistan.


William TARPAI on May 31, 2012, 11:45 p.m.

<p><span>If the International Community is willing to come together with the people and governments  along the New Silk Roads to address the multiple risks and challenges affecting successful design and implementation bridging economic cooperation projects that could benefit more than 10  countries in South and Central Asia.  </span></p> <p><span>It is critical to maintain a sense of urgency, promoting visibility for the sequenced projects, and build consensus and commitment among both stakeholders and development partners.  The U.S. can help countries to assess and improve the effectiveness of communications, particularly guiding efforts to involve community and citizen participation in development efforts. </span></p> <p><span>If the U.S. wishes to reach out to the concerned states to asking them to assist the international community by providing suggestions for avenues to speed up progress, it could:</span></p> <ol> <li><span>Help identify strategies they would like to see implemented within 3 months;</span></li> <li><span>Help identify steps they can take to put these strategies in action; and</span></li> <li><span>Describe confidence-building attitudes their neighbors need to demonstrate to make change possible.</span></li> </ol> <p><span>International partners will work together with individuals in Central Asian states to help to address risks of failure due to <i>insufficient technical and financial resources.  We are</i> convinced that where national leadership buy-in permits, sufficient technical and financial resources can be brought to bear to ensure absorption capacities of all states are improved allowing the vision to become reality, over the next decade, for all Central and South Asian countries. </span></p> <div><span> </span></div>

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