As the United States transitions to a fundamentally different relationship with a democratic, unified Afghanistan, the United States is taking steps to work with regional partners to build on the gains of the past decade. The linchpin of this effort is the opening of new markets and the connection of Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, and beyond. Promoting connectivity in a region that is the least-economically integrated in the world is challenging, but vital to transforming many of these economies from being dependent on aid to thriving as lucrative trading partners. That is why the United States is supporting the "New Silk Road" initiative, linking Central and South Asia through regional energy markets, trade and transport routes, improved customs and borders, and connecting businesses and people.
The "New Silk Road" should not be viewed as a "zero sum game," encroaching on natural and historic alliances with regional powers, but as a necessary process for the independence and economic development of the region. Indeed, new North-South transit and trade routes linking Central and South Asia can complement growing East-West connections across Eurasia, including those pursued by China and Russia.
There is no greater symbol of the potential for change in this region than the Friendship Bridge on the Afghanistan-Uzbekistan border. The last Soviet troops departed Afghanistan via this bridge 25 years ago. Standing on the Friendship Bridge last month, I saw its future potential as a commercial lifeline which could increase regional prosperity and stability. Equipped for multimodal transport, that bridge will allow trucks, rail cars, and barges to feed new markets across Asia, if local governments take steps to integrate their economies and borders.
The U.S. and multilateral investments in transportation and border infrastructure made over the past decade have created much of the physical infrastructure necessary to support cross-border trade. These investments include rail links from Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, bridges and roads connecting Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and also sophisticated truck and port facilities capable of moving large volumes of goods rapidly. Technology such as a U.S. military-installed rail scanner on the Uzbek side of the Friendship Bridge can speed up cargo screenings for commercial goods crossing the border by railroad, eliminating the need to search every rail container by hand and dramatically reducing border crossing times and cost.
These investments have already increased regional trade. The average cost of crossing borders in Central Asia has dropped 15 percent in the last three years, and the volume of intra-regional trade has increased by 49 percent over the last five years. But much more needs to be done to unlock the potential trade and investment opportunities.
The United States and regional powers continue to support Afghanistan's and Kazakhstan's accession to the World Trade Organization so that they can join the global trade community. Governments in the region must also pass and implement cross-border trade and transit agreements, and harmonize their customs regimes so that goods can flow across open, but secure borders.
These steps can yield significant results. The U.S. Agency for International Development found, for instance, that U.S. technical assistance and the commitment by the Afghan government streamlined customs procedures at seven Afghan border crossing points, resulting in expedited trade crossing the border in three and a half hours in 2013, versus the eight days it took in 2009.
Probably the greatest opportunity to connect this region lies in the energy sector, where energy-rich countries in Central Asia could one day supply natural gas and electricity to energy-starved South Asia. Just last month, the World Bank's Board of Executive Directors voted in favor of the CASA-1000 project, which would sell 1,300 megawatts of Kyrgyz and Tajik electricity to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States has robustly supported this project because it understands the historic implications of creating a regional energy grid connecting Central and South Asia.
Beyond infrastructure, the "New Silk Road" vision also seeks to promote greater regional economic integration through people-to-people connections. In February 2014, over 250 Afghan, Kazakhstani, and Uzbekistani businessmen gathered in Mazar-i-Sharif, near the Friendship Bridge, signing over $8 million in letters of intent for commercial sales. Similar U.S.-sponsored conferences in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have successfully brought together hundreds of South and Central Asian businesses and entrepreneurs, including women, generating millions in trade and fostering important relationships across political, religious, and ethnic lines.
These commitments show the desire by people in the region to look past historical differences and to a future of regional economic connectivity that can increase prosperity and stability. It is time for governments to do the same.
Fatema Sumar is the U.S. State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regional Affairs within the Bureau of South and Central Asia.
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