The Oil and the Glory

The deadly risk of romance on the Silk Road

Fourteen years ago, I walked up to the Pakistani Embassy in the western Afghan city of Herat, and asked the chowkidar to relay my Newsweek business card to the consul general. I don’t recall what precisely I had scrawled on the card, but whatever it was, a few moments later, I was led into a ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Fourteen years ago, I walked up to the Pakistani Embassy in the western Afghan city of Herat, and asked the chowkidar to relay my Newsweek business card to the consul general. I don’t recall what precisely I had scrawled on the card, but whatever it was, a few moments later, I was led into a drawing room in which, behind a desk, a man with a beautifully combed, flowing gray beard, a white cap, and a sparkling white shalwar kameez was shouting into a phone in a mixture of Pashto and English. It was something about not to worry, that he would arrange relief troops or supplies, and generally just to hold on. Then Sultan Amir hung up the phone, and, flashing a gorgeous white smile, offered a hand. “Welcome, my brother,” he said.

So began the first of two meetings with the elusive Amir, otherwise known as Col. Imam, a Fort Bragg-trained teacher and champion of the Taliban, for a story on the origins of the Taliban a year after they took power. Amir’s death was confirmed by Pakistani authorities yesterday. The former Pakistani intelligence officer had spent the last 10 months as a captive of a young, ultra-radical mutant strain of the Taliban after wandering into North Waziristan with a local journalist, clearly expecting the respectful treatment he had enjoyed for some three decades among Afghan militants.

If Amir’s death symbolizes something, it is perhaps a cautionary bookend to the long, romantic period in which Pakistan cultivated, influenced and often heavily controlled Afghanistan’s loosely organized fighting bands as part of its strategy to contain Indian influence. Amir did not realize that that world is largely gone. Neither did Khalid Khawaja, another Pakistani intelligence officer who accompanied Amir on the trip; his body was found by the side of a road a month after both were abducted last March.

Afghanistan has always been a place that gets outsiders caught up in their imagination. In the case of Amir, he was locked into the early days of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. For other foreigners, the romantic fixation goes much further back – to the Silk Road, the legendary transportation network that crossed from west to east, and was immortalized by the life of Marco Polo in the 13th century. Just mention the Silk Road to some folks, and you are guaranteed to get them teary-eyed. The latter would be the case for a Johns Hopkins professor named Fred Starr, and some senior U.S. Army Central Command generals who have embraced his vision of a resurrected Silk Road as a way to bring ultimate peace to Afghanistan.

When we last visited this subject, Starr was circulating material about a Modern Silk Road Strategy. Now, he is sending around a 29-page update called Beyond the Fog of Nation-Building: Giving Economic Strategy a Chance. In a nutshell, the idea is to erect a latticework of roads, railroads, electric lines and energy pipelines that would connect the borders of Europe with the ports of the Arabian Sea and India, with Afghanistan in the economic center. Since Afghans would be busy first building all this stuff, then profiting from the mind-boggling trade, war and the trouble with the Taliban would fall away.

Starr is mindful but not dissuaded by the failure of a similar idea in the late 1990s by Unocal, which could not transcend Afghanistan’s instability and conflict to build an oil-and-natural gas pipeline network starting in Turkmenistan and ending in Pakistan. Afghans did not manage to put down their weapons in the face of a paycheck back then, but this time they will, Starr suggests. Josh Kucera writes about the idea at Eurasianet.

Starr spins a great story, and CentCom is behind his plan, said a spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael T. Lawhorn. “Although many aspects addressed in this paper are outside our lanes of responsibility, we have established an internal interagency working group to examine a way forward regarding those concepts where we can best support a U.S. ‘whole of government’ approach,” Lawhorn told me in an email.

Not so much elsewhere in Washington where it also requires support in order to be implemented, specifically at the State Department and the National Security Council, where I did not get the impression that there was much familiarity with Starr’s plan. This aggravates Starr, whose report is a bit snitty about civilians who … just … don’t … get it.

In order to catch their attention, Starr drops the romance and goes straight for the wallet: The New Silk Road is already materializing, says Starr. Everyone else is going to get the goodies and not Americans. Starr waves the red cape, suggesting that already China has stolen a march by getting a copper mine that, in his view, rightly should have gone to an American company:

China, ever ready to eat America’s lunch, shouldered its way past American and other bidders to claim the right to develop Afghanistan’s $3.5 billion copper deposits at Aynak. Are American taxpayers prepared to do the dirty work for programs that will benefit mainly the Chinese?

In Starr’s view, unlike the “energetic” Pentagon crew, civilians in Washington have “dithered” and simply don’t grasp “the realities on the ground in Afghanistan.” On those grounds, Starr goes for the kill:

If at some future point Afghanistan, Pakistan, or some other country in the region is again reduced to harboring future terrorists, America will have only itself to blame.

In case you civilians are still too hard-headed to get it, listen up: If Fred Starr’s view of Afghanistan is not immediate embraced by the whole of the U.S. government, Central Asia, India, Iran, NATO, the world’s financial institutions and beyond, death and destruction will ensue – and you, you ditherers will be responsible.

Back on planet Earth, I had a chat the other day with a new reporter in Washington, an RFE-RL correspondent named Muhammad Tahir. I suggest that Starr himself pay Tahir a visit. Tahir spent some weeks last Fall in an Afghan village called Tarbuz Guzar, in the northern province of Kunduz.

Tahir produced a series of fascinating blog posts (here, here and here), in addition to this feature. As we know, the Taliban have broadened their scope and, as they did in the 1990s, moved from their home ground in southern Afghanistan to the north. A home militia in Tarbuz Guzar was fighting to keep out a Taliban force that had already swallowed up the surrounding villages. Despite blending in and being able to speak the language, Tahir had to devise a ruse in order to get out safely: He misled the entire village as to the timing of his return to Kabul, then hid in the backseat of the vehicle, with a woman in burka in the front next to his driver with the hopes that the Taliban would not question her. The strategy worked.

Here is a video that Tahir produced.

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