Actually Existing Silk Roads

by Magnus Marsden

**Originally posted at Hurstpublishers.com.**

‘Our country is at the heart of Asia’, Zia, an Afghan trader in his mid-50s who works in St Petersburg’s Apraksin Dvor market, remarked to me in December 2015. ‘Yet if the heart has all the qualities that allow the entire body to function, so too is the heart — as pressure increases and the veins block — the place where if one thing goes wrong the entire body fails’.

A succession of policy initiatives announced in recent years depict Afghanistan as a future regional hub on the ‘New Silk Road’. Such initiatives, including the USA’s New Silk Roads strategy launched by Hillary Clinton at the UN General Assembly in September 2011, are a marked improvement on depictions of Afghanistan that circulated in the international media in the 2000s as an isolated, backward and mediaeval state. Representing Afghanistan as a regional hub correctly brings attention to the country’s historic situation on long-distance trade routes, as well as to the critical significance of trade, exchange, and the wider world to Afghan culture and society.

Yet it is also undeniable that talk of Afghanistan reassuming its past status as a pivot between Europe and Asia is both utopian and politically cynical. Levels of violence in Afghanistan have never been as high over the past sixteen years of international intervention as they are today. New threats to Afghanistan’s security, including the activities of ISIS in the east of the country, and the rise of international militant groups in the north, arise on a day-to-day basis. I have observed this at first hand: villages and districts in the north of Afghanistan that I used to visit at ease until four years ago are now in the hands of militants. Afghanistan’s economy furthermore is palpitating in the wake of the withdrawal of international forces and funding and the rise of insecurity. One indication of this are the streams of educated and resourceful youth leaving the country in search of a better life. In spite of all of this, international opinion formers are confident enough to envisage a prosperous, stable, and globally connected Afghanistan.

If one thing remains stable in recent international efforts to engage with Afghanistan, it is the disjunction between the worlds inhabited by policy makers and those by local people. The unwillingness to consult with, seek to understand, and learn from local actors is what stands in the path of a stable Afghanistan. The USA and its allies erred repeatedly in the way in which they engaged with Afghanistan’s society during the long Taliban insurgency— seeing ‘traditional tribal structures’ where thirty years of war and conflict had in fact wreaked havoc and changed society irremediably, they armed the wrong partners and implemented the wrong policies, and traumatic violence was unleashed as a result.

The New Silk Road strategy is likely to have similarly negative consequences: utopian projects of international development that overlook on-the-ground realities frequently bring untold misery to those whose lives they were designed to improve

With imagination, and greater familiarity with regional dynamics, however, things could be different. There are no shortage of actors on the ground who possess a great deal of insight about the possibilities of and barriers to sustainable forms of Eurasian trade. Afghan trader-refugees, men like Zia, are busy at work in markets and trading spaces across Eurasia: in Moscow, St Petersburg, and Krasnodar in Russia; Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv in Ukraine; and Dushanbe, Bishkek, and Alma Ata in Central Asia, traders of Afghan background are leading players in the import and wholesale of commodities. Many of these commodities come from China — where Afghan traders are also an established feature of commercial cities such as Urumqi in the West, Guangzhou in the South, and Yiwu in the East. But Afghan traders are also experts in facilitating the import of Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian commodities to Central Asian markets, thereby connecting, in a way that few others can, this region’s notoriously complex markets to West and South Asia.

Why sell the dream of a ‘New Silk Road’ when a multiplicity of silk — or perhaps more aptly nylon — roads already exist? Why impose a utopian vision of a connected world on people who are already familiar in sophisticated and intimate ways with the dynamics of a complex region? Why are communities that obviously have so much to offer into understanding the role played by trade in connecting Asia and Europe absent from the discourse of the New Silk Road? If the answer is because this category of actor is simplistically thought of as being either drug smugglers or people traffickers then the time has come to think again. As has been amply seen inside Afghanistan, the failure to consult actors on the basis of one-sided images — be such actors former Taliban ideologues or ‘communist’ officials — results only in negative consequences for the country as sources of experience and expertise are dismissed.

Any one of the approximately 100,000 Afghans with experience of trading across the borders of Central Asia, China, and Europe over the past thirty years will tell the architects of the New Silk Road strategy that the barriers to the types of trade that will have positive consequences for local people will not be dealt with through romantic visions of interconnectivity, fashioned by elite politicians who gather at international hotels. It is in the markets and bazaars, in which commerce and exchange actually take place, where the conditions for connectivity will be fashioned. Creating regional interdependence requires social work as much as narrowly economic policy. It requires the making of relationships of friendship and of commerce across the boundaries of ethnicity, language, nationality, religion, and political ideology. It requires the ability to compromise with the powerful and the corrupt. It requires the skills to learn multiple languages. It requires the capacity of individuals and groups to feel at home everywhere. As many of the traders themselves say, ‘we are both traders and diplomats’.

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Two traders in the Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan, 2004. (Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty Images).

The carefully managed and regulated flows of commodities, goods, products, and people envisaged in the New Silk Road strategy will constrain rather than facilitate the flourishing of the social, cultural and political skills that are necessary for durable forms of regional interconnectivity. A Eurasia without the forms of adaptability and flexibility amply demonstrated by Afghan traders will be a far bleaker space. The absence of the diplomatic yet socially valued capacities they display on a daily basis will also mean that conflicts across the region’s multiple boundaries will be more, not less, likely to erupt.

The current fascination with grandiose plans such as the New Silk Road obscures the misery of life in this part of the world. Such plans also conceal the intricate networks that already do exist and that successfully connect different parts of Europe and Asia to one another. These Actually Existing Silk Roads should not be treated as informal, illegal, and thereby inevitably a security threat or a risk. They are better thought of as monuments to the creative activity of people who have been poorly served by the nation-state and the international system over the past decades. It is in this context that they have built their own infrastructures, both for life and for commerce.

A simplistic focus on inter-national agreements, alongside big money infrastructure projects, is unlikely to lead either to greater regional integration or to the establishment of a stable Afghan state. If the international community is truly interested in promoting regional coherence and benefitting from the commercial capacities of local actors, they must, for the time being, put images of a New Silk Road to one side. Attention must be paid instead to the reality of Actual Existing Silk Roads and to understanding the forms of work that communities in the region — in Afghanistan, certainly, but also many others elsewhere — have invested into the making of these.


Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. His most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016.


Title imageMedieval Commerce (Asia). From The Historical Atlas. Private Collection. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

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