Monday, June 7, 2010

Should we focus on building a good rail, road, and energy transit network in Afghanistan?

There's a new report by out of the SAIS (the Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies) Central Asia Caucasus Institute titled "The Key to Success in Afghanistan: A Modern Silk Road Strategy."

Basically, the report argues that building a good rail, road, and energy transit network, based on the old "Silk Road" is the key to sustainable peace because restoring Afghanistan's historic role in regional trade is the only way to develop the country's economy and thus provide long term resource streams for continued security.

The paper starts with an examination of current infrastructure and ongoing improvement projects. Judging these efforts insufficient, the authors argue that:

While the Modern Silk Road represents the best hope for the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan, two common misconceptions have been allowed to prevent the realization of this goal: namely, that the main reasons for Afghanistan‘s failure to breakthrough to rapid development are, first, the absence of security there and, second, its poor infrastructure (25).
They add that:

There is widespread consensus that the biggest obstacles to transcontinental trade are institutional, bureaucratic, and political. The most common of these obstacles are excessive duties imposed by governments, simple corruption on the part of border officials, and the failure of bordering states to cooperate to facilitate trade (26).

These barriers to trade therefore need to be dismantled and the authors recommend that the US take a leading role in encouraging and supporting Afghanistan and neighboring countries in doing so. The authors recommend starting with the road network, then propose improvements to the rail network and then focus on building Afghan capacity to transport energy. To guarantee success, they propose the appointment of a dedicated presidential envoy and corresponding interagency task force. Both would work within the US and with international partners.

This is a very general summary of course but I thought it was an interesting report. I'm not sure it's all that revolutionary and parts of it strike me as a bit simplistic. I'm also not sure I want a "Presidential Envoy for the Silk Road Strategy" (or whatever it would be called). What do you all think?


  1. I am from the mountains of North Carolina.
    It surprises me nearly daily in the similarities between the mountains of NC and those here in AFG (though they are admittedly much larger mountains in AFG).

    Roads are key. You have to make the distance between the valleys smaller, do this via roads.
    This will not turn AFG around in a politically acceptable time line, however. But, long term it will bring the Afghans together. Just as it did in Western NC.

    Not to mention that all Afghans need a common enemy to rally against. An Afghan version of the DOT will serve that purpose nicely. ;)

  2. Anonymous--that's an interesting link. I don't think the article addresses this potential for strategic competition between Afghanistan's trade partners and the ramifications such could have on regional dynamics. It basically says that roads are good and trade is good (I'm really simplifying). What are some of the risks?

    Battle Yeoman--in terms of time and bring people together, this is a discussion people have all the time, whether it's about Congo or Afghanistan. Obviously, it takes time. I think the question is: should it be a priority or as this article suggests, THE priority?

  3. Argh...I can't type the ramifications such roads could have...

  4. Sounds like it would make shipping opium a lot easier if this project goes forward. I imagine evryone involved in the drug trade in Afghanistan wouldn't object to that

  5. Madhu--no worries. I always have to triple check I'm logged in, and with the right ID...anyway. Agreed, yes it seems like we've been talking about this for years. Need to go look at the video!

    On transporting opium, unless I completely missed it, they didn't discuss it. I think the one thing they recommend is increased border/customs control capacity (I know--revolutionary). Maybe that's supposed to mitigate that particular risk.

  6. This is an awesome idea for 2002.

  7. Christian B- and roger

    Battle Yeoman- Remember how bad Intertate 40 got along the chokepoint along NC/TN border a couple of years ago from the construction and rock slides? It basically shut down traffic.

    Putting on my guerrilla hat, I'd do the same thing to any interstate rail system emplaced by a gov't that I wished to overthrow. The Sunnis did similar attacks on the oil pipelines and electricity grids in Iraq, and others have interdicted the A'stan highway ring.


  8. How about a good rail, road, and energy transit network here in the good old US of A. Our underground infrastructures crumbling, bridges are falling, and we could use some new roads and rail routes.

  9. Building infrastructure here sounds like a great idea until you consider that we're more corrupt than the Afghans. About a quarter of Afghan gov't expenditures disappear through bribery and theft. Not too shabby. If only we could have been that honest with the Big Dig. Estimated cost: 2.6 billion. Were we so lucky as for that to be inflated by 25% due to the rampant corruption in Boston, then it only would have cost about 3.3 billion. Instead, the final price tag was 14.8 billion. I'll take my chances driving on our current infrastructure.

  10. I-40 closing a couple of years ago?
    By a couple of years, I guess you mean last month... Cause another rock slide happened, as well as a large slide on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

    In a country that has as little as AFG, Everything must be done in concert, especially in that just a little of one thing (electricity, cell phone signal, roads) can have a huge effect on the valley it now connects to the rest of Afghanistan. Not to mention that a road that links village 'a' to village 'b' could cause village 'c' to take up their weapons.

    If anything the ring-road out here is improving the connectivity between the major cities in AFG. Anything beyond this I think will have to be driven by the mining of resources in AFG. I read that something like 1-3 Trillion in minerals is in AFG. The Chinese will want these, I bet they will end up building the roads to get at them.

  11. Battle Yeoman,

    Those WNC folks know the local trails better than outsiders. I know - I married a man from Brevard, NC, and hiked most ridges and valleys in Pisgah with him. Our sons have learned those ways, too.

    Interesting parallels you try to make between NC mountain folk and Afghans.

    And I-40? The geologists predicted those frequent slides when I-40 was built.

    I think Westerners are quick to tell the Afghans what to do. I agree with Lil, the Modern Silk Road "strategy" is simplistic. I know I do not want a "Presidential Envoy for the Silk Road Strategy".

    Stay safe, especially if you are amongst the Afghans now.


  12. Just an aside...I wonder what these NY guys would think of the breathless writing of Kuchins and Starr?