Afghanistan's future lies in trade partnerships

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 20, 2010

The recent Washington debate over Af-Pak strategy has had it backward: This war is less about trying to defeat the Taliban militarily in Afghanistan than it is about reaching an understanding with Pakistan that closes Taliban havens there and allows a political reconciliation among the warring Afghan parties. It's a Pak-Af problem, not the other way around.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to recognize this reality; that's why he's holding his peace jirga, meeting with Taliban contacts and sacking an intelligence chief whom Pakistan regards as an enemy. President Obama seems to appreciate the likely political endgame, but he spends too little time explaining this conflict to a skeptical American public.

One reason our Afghanistan strategy is so puzzling is that people don't have a clear picture of what the United States is trying to achieve through its mix of military and diplomatic action. We know from political science studies that when a strategy becomes fuzzy, political support vanishes. This was true in Vietnam and Iraq, and it's now happening with Afghanistan.

The most useful analysis I've seen recently is "The Key to Success in Afghanistan: A Modern Silk Road Strategy." It was prepared by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It also had major input from the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war.

The Silk Road study tries to visualize the kind of Afghanistan that might exist after U.S. troops begin coming home in July 2011. Instead of being a lawless frontier, this post-conflict Afghanistan would be a transit route for Eurasia, providing trade corridors north and south, east and west.

To make this transport-led strategy work, Afghanistan would need to build more roads, railways and pipelines. A hypothetical railway map shows routes that connect Iran with India, Russia with Pakistan, China with the Arabian Sea. It knits together the rising powers of this region and makes Afghanistan a hub rather than a barrier.

I first heard discussion of this modern Silk Road idea from Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister. He made a powerful analogy to America's own development: What secured our lawless Wild West frontier was the transcontinental railroad in 1869. With trade and economic growth came stability.

Asian nations understand the benefits they could gain from transit links across Afghanistan. Take the ring road that links Afghanistan's biggest cities; the United States has pumped $1.8 billion into this and other road projects since 2002, but neighboring Iran has also put up a hefty $220 million. China has built roads connecting its western Xinjiang province with Afghanistan, by way of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the Chinese are building a $50 million roadway in Wardak province.

There was a buzz last week because of a U.S. estimate that Afghanistan could possess $1 trillion in mineral wealth. That's a pipe dream for now, but what's real is a Chinese project to invest $3 billion in the Aynak copper mine, south of Kabul. To transport the copper, China has pledged to build a new railway route north, through Tajikistan, and the Chinese want to extend this rail link to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.

Then there's the energy trade: The authors of the report, Frederick Starr and Andrew C. Kuchins, note that the Asian Development Bank is considering funding a $7.6 billion pipeline that would link natural gas reserves in Turkmenistan with energy-poor Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Hold on! How can you think of building roads, railways and pipelines when there's a war going on? Doesn't security have to come first for Afghanistan, before economic development will be possible?

Yes, and that's why this Silk Road study is so valuable. It explains the longer-term mission that U.S. troops are serving in their battles in lawless areas of Afghanistan. More to the point, it explains why it would be in the interest of all the regional powers -- especially Pakistan -- to encourage a political settlement of the war that would open Afghanistan and other Central Asian markets to Pakistani merchants.

The American public is tiring of an Afghanistan war that lacks a clear strategic framework. I wish that President Obama hadn't announced his July 2011 timetable, because this could delay the Afghan political deal that will allow U.S. troops to leave. But if we think less about "clear and hold" and more about roads and railways, maybe people in America -- and Pakistan, India and China, too -- will understand better what's to be gained from a more stable Afghanistan.

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