New 'Silk Road' eyed for Afghanistan

Published Sep 22, 2011 04:45am

US President Barack Obama speaks during a bilateral meeting with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai September 20, 2011 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. — Photo by AFP

UNITED NATIONS: Afghanistan, its neighbours and supporters are launching a drive to boost prosperity and peace by linking the country with markets across South and Central Asia, US officials said Wednesday.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle will host talks in New York Thursday on what amounts to plans for a “New Silk Road,” they said.

Like the ancient Silk Road, Afghanistan would be at the heart of lucrative trade routes between Asia and the West, but it would involve modern highways, rail links and energy pipelines, senior US administration officials told reporters.

They said the New York talks — which will draw officials from Afghanistan's neighbours and near-neighbours, including China — will pave the way for meetings in Istanbul on November 2 and in Bonn, Germany, on December 5.

The meetings are designed to promote the “idea that a secure, stable and prosperous Afghanistan will only really be able to exist inside a secure, stable and prosperous region,” a senior US official told reporters.

“It's part of a wider effort to help to build up the Afghan private sector, to help create sustainable economic development in Afghanistan, to create this economic integration between South and Central Asia,” a second US official said.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to upstage the high-level officials attending the meeting, said the “New Silk Road” builds on projects that are already underway in the region.

One of them includes the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, which was launched in June this year to reduce the costs and delays in transporting goods between the two often tense neighbours.

The second official said the Afghans and Pakistanis have agreed to try to extend the arrangement to central Asia. “We also hope it could be extended to India as well,” the official said.

The officials did not say how the longstanding tension between Pakistan and India would affect the plans, but noted that the Indian and Pakistani commerce secretaries have been engaged for months in trying to increase cross-border trade.

“The ultimate goal is to reduce trade and other barriers so that products from Afghanistan or from any of the Central Asian countries could transit through Pakistan and into India, Bangladesh or even beyond,” he said.

“This is really a truly transformative vision because...India is going to be such an important economic actor for the region,” he said.

The New Silk Road project also calls for building on progress to extend energy pipelines across Central Asia.

The second official recalled progress the governments of Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India have made in building the TAPI pipeline to bring natural gas from Turkmenistan fields to India's energy markets.

“It would bring important transit revenues for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.

He also cited the example of Uzbekistan, which he said has been “very helpful” working with the Asian Development Bank and others to develop the rail link from its own border to Mazar-i-Sharif, in Afghanistan.


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