An Afghan trade route: What could possibly go wrong with that?

The U.S. military is studying a plan to solve Afghanistan's problems by turning it into a superhighway of roads, railroads, electricity lines and energy pipelines connected to the entire Eurasian landmass. According to a piece in the National Journal by Sydney Freedberg, the proposal has the ear of Gen. David Petraeus, whose confirmation hearings to be the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan start today in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The plan is heavy on ringing optimism. I have my doubts. They are rooted in the last time this was tried, in the 1990s, when Unocal -- now part of Chevron -- sought to build an $8 billion oil-and-natural gas pipeline network from Turkmenistan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. The plan -- which Unocal saw as so potentially lucrative that it could catapult the company into the big leagues of the industry -- attracted much attention, hoopla and hopes for peace after years of war and chaos in the country.

Then it fell apart. There were just a few reasons:

1. The country was at war;

2. The Taliban were not the usual pipeline-negotiating types;

3. The Taliban kept beating Afghan women in the streets, which aggravated American human-rights advocates;

4. Osama bin Laden kept attacking U.S. targets like embassies, which aggravated the U.S. military.

So in 1998, three years after first launching the venture, Unocal withdrew. Taking stock of the affair a few years later, Unocal executive Marty Miller told me he felt like "a team sent on a suicide mission. If it worked out, we would be heroes. But there was a good chance we would be slaughtered." What he said at his Austin, TX., golf club reminded me of nighttime talks I had back in 1996 in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif with Charlie Santos, the on-the-ground pipeline representative for Unocal's partner in the deal, a Saudi company called Delta. Santos was a bit secretive, but he'd talk to you if you asked, and were patient. Much maligned by his colleagues, Santos saw what they didn't. "There isn't going to be any pipeline deal with the Taliban, no freaking way," Santos would repeat. It wasn't that the pipeline idea wasn't technically great -- it was. What Santos meant was that the tribal reality wouldn't allow for such an infrastructure to be built. There was also the matter of funding sources: They weren't going to pony up billions of dollars for an energy network with a 30-year life if it was built across a war zone.

The authors of the new report -- S. Frederick Starr over at Johns Hopkins, and Andrew Kuchins at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- do not suggest that the problems presented by the Taliban in the 1990s are over. Instead, they argue that those focused on security are using "flawed" analysis. David Ignatius wrote about it over at The Washington Post.

They call their much-expanded version of the Unocal line the "Modern Silk Road Strategy." You know you are in trouble when someone trots out the Silk Road and the late 19th-early 20th Century English geographer Sir Halford Mackinder in the middle of a war strategy. The Great Game is not far behind (in fact two sentences after Mackinder's stage entrance), and with it much romance.

Starr has been advocating variations of this plan for at least four years. The idea is "a major effort to link India's booming economy through Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia to Caspian, European, Russian and Chinese markets," according to a 48-page booklet describing the idea.

The plan provides no details on the extent of the construction envisioned, nor the price. But Afghanistan, which currently contains a whopping 15 miles of railroad track, would have a full-blown rail network following most of the country's perimeter before trailing off to Pakistan's port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, and connecting to existing railroads in Pakistan, in Iran and north into the former Soviet Union. Afghanistan's road network would be completed and built up to modern standards. Electric lines would be extended throughout the country.

As for energy pipelines, the new plan calls for the construction of the 1,000-mile-long Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, known as TAPI, which the Asian Development Bank is studying. It and the Unocal proposal are generally identical routes through the Taliban heartland in western and southern Afghanistan. 

The authors say those concerned about security for the tens of billions of dollars in modern construction described here aren't focusing on the main issue. As evidence, they point to an Asian Development Bank survey of almost 1,000 truck drivers whose job it was to haul goods across Eurasia including through Afghanistan; 90% of the respondents cited bureaucracy at borders (delays for customs and so forth), rather than security, as the chief impediment to their work.

Corruption on the borders across the region is rife, and the military's one stab at the type of network that Starr and Kuchins are proposing -- the so-called Northern Distribution Network -- has not gotten off to a stunning beginning, according to a piece by Dierdre Tynan at Eurasianet.org. In addition to border difficulties, the infrastructure across the former Soviet Union simply isn't very good. So in order to achieve what the Starr-Kuchins report envisions, we are talking reconstruction all the way from Afghanistan to the Baltics.

I tried to find this ADB report. While I did not succeed -- the study is not footnoted; Starr is in Kazakhstan and said he would locate it on his return -- I did find a previous citation for it in 2006 (also in a document produced by Starr). Meaning that the survey was conducted before much of the Taliban's revival into a highly problematic force.

The question isn't whether it is a great idea for Afghanistan to be tied in with the rest of the world with a modern infrastructure. It is whether this is the stuff of dreamers.

For an agnostic expert view, I contacted a longtime friend - an expert on Afghanistan - who is currently serving in the country. He emailed me back, but asked that he not be identified. Here is his response.

First, it's going to be a long, long time before the infrastructure is in place in Afghanistan for it to be competitive with the far more developed infrastructure in Iran. Secondly, the security problems and unhealthy climate in Afghanistan for either business, regulation, or any form of legitimate activity isn't something that's going to go away soon. We continue to see Afghans playing the same games that they have for decades: they hold up shipments for bribes, they loot shipments and they trump up reasons to impede transportation in order to control and compete unfairly because it's far more lucrative than legitimate commerce.

Moreover, the massively attractive destination for everything isn't Pakistan, it's India. And India has profound concerns that any transportation or resource routes that transit Pakistan are unreliable

and put them at the mercy of the shabby, inept, unstable government and politics of Pakistan.

In addition, the Pakistani infrastructure is generally in bad shape, except for the expanding highway system. The Pakistani rail system is in terrible shape and it's built on a British gauge. It has suffered from lack of investment and modernization. Gwadar port has potential but it's in the middle of nowhere with no modern connections to the rest of Pakistan. And there's the simmering insurgency in Baluchistan which illustrates the inability of Pakistan throughout its history to deal fairly with the minority provinces. Why should we expect the shabby infrastructure and the instability in Baluchistan to disappear when all of the trend in Pakistan point to a continuation of the type of conditions that have characterized the place since its founding?

The rail system in the Stans is built to Soviet standards. There's a modern rail system in Iran which may be a different gauge, but it's been built up and extends throughout the country. Already there is some interconnectedness between the Stans and the Iranian rail system.  Moreover there's Charbahar port which the Indians built in Iran.

One of the few positive developments that I've noted recently was that the field survey of Turkmenistan gas fields suggest that there is a significant amount of gas there. But will Gazprom allow Turkmenistan to develop another market, or will it try to control the gas in order to send it to markets in Europe? Whatever the case, I'd not want to build a pipeline across Afghanistan in such an insecure environment. Even with superb engineering, it will be susceptible to interference and sabotage.

As with the stories a few weeks ago about Afghanistan have abundant mineral wealth, it seems at this time there's an interest in building up the case for why we're in Afghanistan. Everything that can suggest benefits will accrue from this adventure is being presented. I suspect that this is one reason that Starr's proposal is receiving more widespread attention than it has earlier.

I also emailed John Imle, who was president of Unocal and oversaw the company's 1990s pipeline plans. He personally thinks that if the plan involves Afghan President Hamid Karzai "brokering discussions of business with all of the then political factions on Afghanistan, ... I think he's on the right track." Imle said, "I feel I've awakened after a long sleep to another Groundhog Day! I hope someone gets it right this time!"  

John Moore/Getty Images

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