Colonel Lang's reminder that next year, American and NATO forces will be gone from Afghanistan "for good" underscores the fact that Afghan's future is in doubt. On Sunday night on Sixty Minutes, the just-retired Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morrell warned that both Syria and Afghanistan could become future sanctuaries for Sunni jihadists. In the case of Afghanistan, he warned that a Taliban-led Afghanistan–a very real possibility over the next few years–would certainly pose a global threat of terrorism. There is, however, an alternative that has been kicking around for a number of years. In several appearances before Senate and House foreign relations committee hearings, Hillary Clinton, while Secretary of State, had called for a regional conference to devise a cooperative solution to Afghanistan and the entire volatile Central Asian region. She urged that the conference participants include Afghanistan, the "Stans," Pakistan, India, Russia, China and Iran, with the U.S. and Europeans also participating. Such a regional approach would necessarily have both security and economic dimensions.
Last week, Pepe Escobar, a well-respected journalist for Asia Times, spotlighted the prospects of a revival of the Silk Road, based on proposals presented by China's new President Xi Jinping at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference. En route to the SCO event, Xi made several stop-overs in Central Asia. In a September 7 speech in Astana, Kazakhstan, he called for a New Silk Road. As Escobar reported, "Xi's official `economic belt along the Silk Road' is a supremely ambitious, Chinese-fueled trans-Eurasian integration mega-project, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea; a sort of mega free-trade zone. Xi's rationale seems to be unimpeachable; the belt is the home of close to 3 billion people and represents the biggest market in the world with unparallel potential."
Escobar went on about the sheer scope of the potential for Central Asia. "Beijing is already massively investing in new roads and bridges along the Eurasian Land Bridge–another denomination of the New Silk Road… The New Silk Road is all about highways, railways, fiber optics and pipelines–with now the added Chinese push for logistics centers, manufacturing bubs, and, inevitably, new townships."
Here is Escobar's kicker, as if it wasn't already obvious: "TheSCO is actively discussing its regional options after Washington's withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. china and russia will be deeply involved. Same for Iran–for the moment an SCO observer. Xi's Silk Road belt, in principle, is not detonating alarm bells in the Kremlin. The Kremlin spin is that Russia and China's economies are complementary–as in China's `sizeable financial resources' matching Russia's `technologies, industrial skills and historical relations with the region.'|"
It is noteworthy that one of the highlights of the SCO session was a sideline meeting between Putin, Xi and Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani invited Putin to Moscow and Putin accepted.
The great virtue of letting some of the vested regional interests deal with the post-US/NATO Afghan security challenges is that they all need regional stability to take advantage of the massive gas, oil and precious metal wealth in Central Asia. China worries about security in the western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet, Russia faces both the plague of heroin and opium coming out of Afghanistan and the constant threat of Salafist terrorism in the Caucaus.
If these regional powers can create a stable exit for the U.S. and NATO and take on the security problems that follow, it serves everybody's interests. No need for some new Great Game. China's relations with Pakistan are far better than Washington's "best of enemies, worst of friends" tangled ties. Russia continues to exert sway with India. If they all cooperate, the New Silk Road dream can become reality over the coming years. Iran was cooperative with the United States after 9/11 and helped Washington diplomats stand up the Karzai government. They share a common border with Afghanistan and the Herat area is practically a suburb of the Islamic Republic.
You say it's a pipe dream? What if those pipes are filled with vast quantities of natural gas and petroleum turning Central Asia into the next great frontier? After a dozen years of American misadventures in "Afpak" it is certainly an option worth trying. American taxpayers, as well as Chinese consumers, may find it appealing.