The Long Way Home: Afghanistan, the US, and the Promise of a New Silk Road


Rugged, landlocked, and lacking in major transportation infrastructure, modern Afghanistan is no friend of the modern logistician, military or otherwise. In consideration of the challenging security environment, episodic closures of the primary supply lines through Pakistan, and uncertainty over what, if any, military forces will remain in Afghanistan post 2014, one begins to see the enormous challenges facing the United States (US) military in extracting over 40,000 vehicles and containers from the country in little less than a year’s time.1 This monumental effort is interesting in its own right; however, this essay focuses on the geo-political impacts of alternative NATO supply routes, collectively known as the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), that travel through Central Asia and the Caucasus. Will the temporal international partnerships and infrastructure improvements facilitated by wartime exigency foster enduring economic integration in line with the US vision of a “New Silk Road” (NSR)?

Though a respectable body of work exists on the Central Asian region, this is less true for the Southern Caucasus. This brief review attempts to highlight the key trends affecting the NSR are prevalent in both regions, suggesting larger implications for US policy. Specifically, I argue that though a number of New Silk Roads may indeed take shape in the coming decades, regional rivalries and the competing ambitions of great powers will-contrary to US goals-prevent Afghanistan from serving as a major node in such a network.


In order to better assess the prospects of building an economically viable Afghanistan on the physical and legal framework established by the US/NATO military supply lines, it is necessary to understand the NDN, the NSR and what, if any, meaningful relationship exists between them. The major NDN routes of concern to this article consist of two legs that used varied combinations of commercial rail, ship, and overland travel to transport supplies to and from Afghanistan. The first leg is a north-westerly oriented web of transit infrastructure passing through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. The second major artery moves towards the Caspian Sea before passing through Azerbaijan and Georgia in its westward progression to continental Europe and the US. Upon its implementation in late 2008/early 2009, the NDN served as a critical, though more expensive, alternative means of delivering non-lethal materiel to Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s troop surge strategy. In the loosening of the Pakistani stranglehold on the flow of supplies to Afghanistan, researchers Andrew Kuchins and Tom Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies rightly assessed that the NDN could, in spite of the acknowledged risks, serve as the framework for greater regional economic integration.2 Not surprisingly, the US government also recognized the potential for an increased return on the diplomatic and economic capital spent in establishing the NDN and formally announced the New Silk Road initiative in the summer of 2011. While former Secretary of State Clinton’s address was more general in nature, remarks in 2013 by another senior State Department official aptly describe the aims of the program:

When we speak of a New Silk Road, we mean on the one hand physical connectivity – transport, communications, and energy infrastructure that links countries of the region together and links them with South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. On the other hand and equally important, we mean the practices, regulations, legislative bases, and international agreements in the areas of trade and transit that allow goods and services to flow efficiently from country to country across this infrastructure.3

Nearly two and half years into the implementation phase of this policy, it is clearly achieving gains on multiple fronts. However, as these next sections on Central Asia and the Caucasus demonstrate, great power rivalries and differing perceptions among relevant states on how best to achieve economic cooperation will ultimately dampen the prospects of a well-integrated and stable Afghanistan.

Central Asia

The interplay among the NDN, NSR, and Central Asia is well discussed in recent academic literature and reports.4Therefore, this short article generally seeks to extract their key findings and supplement them with additional evidence in order to eventually demonstrate that the factors inhibiting the NSR in Central Asia are not products of regional uniqueness; rather, they are but one aspect of a tripartite pursuit of interests between Russia, China and the US on the Eurasian landmass.

The NDN and subsequent initiatives under the NSR do provide for a sense of cautious optimism. New rail links connect Afghanistan to northerly neighbors, transmission lines improved power flows to some Afghan cities, and major redistributive energy projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-India-Pakistan (TAPI) pipeline are receiving new focus. Nevertheless, full economic integration will remain out of reach for some time due to the disjointed ways in which individual states attempt to achieve cooperation. This “disunity of effort” is a direct result of the policies of China, Russia, and the US which ultimately force Central Asian states to choose from a “menu” of often incongruent collaboration plans, each designed with the benefit of a particular great power in mind. A quick survey across Central Asia supports the idea that China and Russia view the NDN and, by extension, the NSR as a threat to their interests.5

Kazakhstan, for one, is part way through a two year US$19 million major transportation infrastructure improvement, with a primary focus of linking China with Europe.6 The east-west focus is not surprising as Russia and China would receive a greater direct benefit from these projects as opposed to trade flows diverted southward towards Afghanistan. Russia further succeeded in pulling Kazakhstan into its orbit through a Customs Union that also includes Belarus and, depending on the outcome of ongoing issues, Ukraine too.7 Uzbekistan is another telling story of the conflicting influence of great powers in a penetrated regional system. The Uzbek government entered into a mutual defense agreement with Russia in 2005 after a spat with the US, yet a few years later Uzbekistan renounced its participation in the Russian sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in order to place itself as the forerunner for the lucrative logistics commerce stemming from the establishment of the NDN.8 Kyrgyzstan, meanwhile, in a deft display of multi-vector diplomacy successfully arranged for the upcoming eviction of the US military from the Manas Transit Center in a move that pleased particular domestic audiences as well as Russia and China. With one less foreign base in their backyard, China has pressed ahead on issues of mutual concern with Kyrgyzstan such as enhanced border security, improving rail linkages, and developing energy infrastructure.9

Though not an exhaustive examination of the complex web interlinking the sovereign desires of Central Asian states with the regional aspirations of major international powers; the aforementioned examples are indicative of an intense competition to secure interests. These countervailing influences, along with other factors not covered in depth here, mean that the US vision of the NSR has not increased cooperation, distributed NDN commerce equitably, effectively lowered trade barriers, or reduced corruption.10 Overall, China, Russia, and the US each look to different regional states as the lynchpin of their respective foreign policy efforts in Central Asia.11 Thus, while the US envisions elements of a commercialized NDN serving as foundations for non-military goods coursing through Afghanistan; it is increasingly apparent that neither China nor Russia shares a similar sentiment.

The Southern Caucasus

Though better integrated in some respects than their Central Asian brethren on the NDN, non-congruent interests and strategic rivalries will also limit any future non-military related trade flows between the Southern Caucasus and Afghanistan. In fact, the damaging effects of great power competition are arguably more prevalent in this region than that of Central Asia. Russia will not willingly acquiesce to any project that results in greater Western economic or military cooperation in the countries along its southern border. Furthermore, concerns over energy security for both Europe and Russia will overshadow efforts to transform this leg of the NDN into a complementary portion of a New Silk Road.

During a 2012 trip to the region by senior US military logistics and policy officials, US Air Force General Fraser III cited the ongoing rail and port facility improvements across Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey as evidence of the potential for the NDN to transform the region. General Fraser stated, “As they look forward to the future, these countries [that comprise the NDN] know that the military is not going to be doing things at the same level that we have been for a long time. So they are looking for ways to capitalize on what has happened as a result of the Northern Distribution Network.”12Unfortunately, seemingly intractable territorial disputes and tension between Russia and the West will ensure that future deep integration that includes not just Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, but also Armenia is limited and not likely to bring significant benefit to Afghanistan.

The states of the South Caucasus are acutely aware that infrastructure improvements that might improve cross border transit of goods are rarely viewed from a purely economic paradigm in which a rising tide of freer trade might raise all ships. Instead, projects seem to be viewed by the EU, Russia, and US triad as more of a zero-sum game, pitting the West versus Russia in the race to secure energy flows, transit links, and military cooperation. The former President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, expressed how deeply intertwined regional and international issues continue to challenge regional economic development:

I hope that the South Caucasus will in the long-term perspective become a united region because Armenia needs to have ties with its neighbours and cannot remain isolated. I am sure that we will be able to integrate Armenia into this common zone of stability. But this should happen as a part of a process of political liberalization, not just through the opening of the railway in Georgia [reference to the non-functioning link between Russia and Georgia through the breakaway region of Abkhazia] and linking it to the Kars-Akhalkalaki [railway under construction that is to link Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey], which is a strategic project for us.13 [Comments added by BBC]

Not surprisingly, Russia continues to look for means of reasserting its influence in the region in the hope of enticing (or coercing) the Caucasus away from European and American cooperation. Russia is pursuing this strategy in a number of ways. One means is through Russia’s support for Armenia (which has long running disputes with Azerbaijan). A report examining business prospects in the Caucasus assesses that this support for Armenia is likely to “weaken the ‘pro-western’ project in 2014”.14 Furthermore, in a somewhat surprising turn, Russia also looked to new arms sales to Azerbaijan, as a possible response to restore its loss of military influence following the expulsion of Russian forces from an Azerbaijani based radar station in 2012. The official Russian response to the reports of new military sales emphasized that the goal is merely to maintain military parity between Armenia and Azerbaijan.15 These actions along with Russia’s longstanding concern over Georgia’s continued close relationship with NATO-one that is likely to blossom into full membership at some point in the future-and the unresolved issues over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, will prevent any form of major economic integration for some time.

Outside of the military realm, the race to secure gas from energy rich Azerbaijan is sowing seeds of discord between the EU and Russia as well. Gas pipeline projects such as Nabucco, Blue Stream, and South Stream reflect the divergent energy security of policies of Russia and the EU. Russia is interested in breaking Ukrainian influence on the transit of energy while still remaining a major energy supplier to Western Europe, meanwhile the EU is looking to reduce its reliance on Russian gas sources that it perceives as a strategic and political liability.16 Existing and proposed pipelines will ensure that energy continues to flow from Azerbaijan, but the real game is over political control of these resources, thereby reducing the impact for greater integration between Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey.17


From a military perspective, the NDN should rightly be hailed as a major success for shifting the war effort in Afghanistan away from a complete dependence on Pakistan supply routes. The development of the NDN represents both good military strategy and a means of temporarily spreading economic wealth, vis-a-vis commerce contracts, across a greater expanse of countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, this spigot of money will quickly become a trickle as the international presence in Afghanistan reaches its long term equilibrium. Thus, while most countries large and small share a vision for some form of a New Silk Road in principle, in practice the competing ambitions of regional and international actors pull, constrain, and shape this vision in a way which best suits individual interests. This is perhaps best exemplified in the presentations of NDN affiliated states from the Baltic, Central Asian, and Caucasus region at a recent conference. In the state by state commentary, two major themes emerged: the participants made little mention of Afghanistan as the pinnacle focus of integration efforts and tended to view their own country (not surprisingly) as best suited to serve as the preeminent caravansary of future Eurasian commerce.18 It seems that New Silk Roads to improved trade will be paved by starkly contending objectives.

1 Craig Whitlock, “In Afghanistan drawdown, U.S. forced to take costly option in transporting military gear out”, The Washington Post, 13 September 2013; and “Withdrawing from Afghanistan: The Big Retrograde”, The Economist, 27 April 2013.
2 Andrew Kuchins and Tom Sanderson, “The Northern Distribution Network and Afghanistan: Geopolitical Challenges and Opportunities” 06 Jan 2010; “The Key to Success in Afghanistan: A Modern Silk Road Strategy”, 10 June 2010; and associated multi-media all available from
3 Deputy Assistant Secretary Lynne M. Tracy, The United States and the New Silk Road (28 October 2013), (adjust speech citation) [US Department of State remarks] available from; for the original unveiling of the initiative see: Secretary of State (fmr.) Hillary Clinton, Secretary Clinton on India: A Vision for the 21st Century (20 July 2011), [US Department of State remarks] available from
4 Younkyoo Kim and Fabio Indeo, “The new great game in Central Asia post 2014: The US ‘New Silk Road’ Strategy and Sino-Russian Rivalry”, Communist and Post Communist Studies 46 (2013) 275-286; and Graham Lee, “The New Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network: A Golden Road to Central Asian Trade Reform?” Central Eurasia Project Occasional Paper Series #8. Oct 2012. Open Society Foundation.
5 Kim and Indeo, 277.
6 “A New Silk Road”. PM Network. Dec2012, Vol. 26 Issue 12, 11-12. [available online via ProQuest Business Source]
7 Kim and Indeo, 280.
8 Ibid, 279.
9 Ibid, 282.
10 Lee, 38.
11 Business Monitor International Limited, Kazakhstan and Central Asia Defence & Security Report Q2 2012; and J. Mankoff, “The United States and Central Asia after 2014”, (2012) Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington D.C; and Kim and Indeo, 279.
12 Donna Miles, “Afghanistan Supply Network Provides Economic Opportunity”, American Forces Press Service (28 November 2012), available from
13 “Georgian president praises Azerbaijan at South Caucasus Forum” BBC Monitoring Central Asia [London] 07 May 2013. [Wire News Service] available from ProQuest Business Source Complete
14 “PROSPECTS 2014: South Caucasus”, Oxford Analytica Daily Brief Service. (26 Nov 2013) available from ProQuest Business Source Complete
15 “Russia trying to restore presence in South Caucasus ‘at least partially’ ” BBC Monitoring Central Asia [London] 30 June 2013. [Wire News Service] available from ProQuest Business Source Complete
16 Einar Wigen, “Pipe dreams or dream pipe? Turkey’s Hopes of Becoming an Energy Hub”, The Middle East Journal 66 (2012), no. 4: 598-612.
17 Ayhan Güney, and Selim Özdemir, “Is The Regional Economic Cooperation In South Caucasus Myth or Reality?” Suleyman Demirel University Journal of Faculty of Economics & Administrative Sciences 16, no. 1: 133-145 (2011). Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2013).
18 Joshua Kucera, “Time for realism on the New Silk Road”, Railway Gazette International. (September 2013), Vol. 169 Issue 9, p86-86.

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