As the combat mission of the U.S. military winds down in Afghanistan, there has been much discussion about the future of Afghanistan and its relations with neighbors and patrons henceforth. Afghanistan cannot escape its geography, its region, or relations with its neighbors. In turn, the real question becomes: How can the U.S. can help or hinder Afghanistan’s transition to full sovereignty?
Afghanistan cannot be understood without understanding its neighbors. Many easily identify Pakistan as Afghanistan’s most important neighbor, and in many ways it is. From a geographical perspective, it’s easy to see why Iran is also an important country to consider. The important roles of China and India (even if India is not technically a neighboring state) must also be recognized.
While the aforementioned influences are critical, this analysis misses an important part of the region surrounding Afghanistan: the rest of Central Asia. This region – the five “stans” leftover from the dissolution of the Soviet Union – will define Afghanistan’s future almost as much as Pakistan and Iran. Yet these relationships are tragically under-studied in the West.
One way the U.S. coped with the seven-month closure of the Pakistani supply lines to the landlocked war was by shipping containers through the post-Soviet countries north of Afghanistan. Now, those shipping lines are being reversed to allow the U.S. to withdraw equipment.
The challenges of integrating Central Asia into the exit from Afghanistan are fairly well tread. What about the opportunities? Are there ways the U.S. and the transit countries can benefit from the increased transport through the former Soviet Union?
One idea the U.S. State Department is pushing is the New Silk Road: essentially rebuilding the ancient spice route that once linked Europe and the Middle East with Asia. Within Afghanistan, the idea is tremendously popular; it offers a chance for Afghanistan to develop markets apart from its Iranian and Pakistani neighbors (both of whom exert malign influence there).
The plan, however, is flawed in several ways. For one, it ignores the politics of the region, which are intensely personal and fairly antagonistic. Another problem is price; it is still far cheaper to ship goods from Asia to Europe via the ocean than it is over land on trains and trucks. Even with further development, it is unlikely that a land route can prove less expensive than an ocean crossing.
There are also competing regional economic institutions, starting with Vladimir Putin’s latest brainchild, the Eurasian Union (consisting of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan). While it’s far from certain that the “other” EU will coalesce into a true economic block, it is much further along than the State Department’s New Silk Road idea.
U.S. interest in Central Asia has some observers worried, however. Cornelius Graubner, a program officer from George Soros’ Open Society Institute is worried that the U.S. focus on Afghanistan, and its security assistance with the regimes of Central Asia, might actually make the region worse off. The assumption driving U.S. interest, he argues, is that instability from an unsettled Afghanistan will spillover northward, creating more instability there. While he is right to point out that Afghanistan is not the only (or even the biggest) threat to regional stability, there just isn’t much evidence that a fear of Afghan instability is driving U.S. interest in the region.
Analysts more closely associated with the U.S. government show a different set of assumptions at play. Sarah Chayes, a former advisor for the U.S. military, thinks Uzbekistan might hold the key to making connections to Afghanistan that the international community lacks:
While present in fewer numbers than in Pakistan or Iran, Afghans travel and live in Uzbekistan, and those encountered, from senior diplomats to an itinerant rug merchant, are enthusiastic about the country and the role it has played in theirs – a contrast with the attitudes of most Afghans toward Pakistan. That rug merchant boasts of forwarding 2 percent of his profits to Abdul Rashid Dostum, mercurial former Afghan general and warlord, seen as a leader of the ethnic Uzbek community. Every businessman he knows, claims the merchant, even non-Afghan citizens, tithes likewise.
Ms. Chayes is probably overstating those connections a bit (a carpet vendor is hardly representative of all Uzbek businessmen, many of whom are closely tied to the President’s family), her argument that the neighboring countries offer social and political ties we can learn from is spot on.
Developing a policy for the region is no easy task. But efforts like the New Silk Road initiative, even if optimistic in outlook, show an unusual forward thinking to U.S. policy. It is rare to hear officials speak of five years or longer timeframes when making plans, yet that is what is happening in Central Asia.
These efforts also show a much needed attempt to view the region as a whole, with a need for a regional policy that includes stable places like Kazakhstan as well as unstable places like Afghanistan. It’s hard work, but moving past a reliance on bilateral deals to considering regions in a broader context is one way the U.S. can avoid the tunnel vision that often cripples its diplomatic ambitions.
It’s far too early to know if this new regional focus from the U.S. is going to pay off. But at the very least, it is an encouraging sign.