Trans-Afghan Railway Network and Regional Connectivity

By Rabbia Bashir

Afghanistan is situated where four of the most populated and resource-rich regions of the world converge: South Asia, Central, and North Asia, the Middle East, and Far East Asia. Afghanistan serves as a vital crossroads between the regions and can thus it can become crucial to the commercial network of the Eurasian continent. Despite being a rich resource country, it has been in turmoil for decades with political and civil unrest. The economic instability and other humanitarian issues, mainly poverty and drought have been exacerbated after the withdrawal of US forces.

The exit of US troops and the sudden fall of Kabul have created a wide array of political and economic crises in an already war-torn country. Yet, Afghanistan is paving its way toward regional connectivity via transit trade routes to stabilize its economic situation. It is high time for stakeholders in Central Asia and South Asia region to understand the dynamics of geo-economics and keep aside their geo-political differences for progress and peace in the region. The road and railway infrastructure will be needed to expand economic integration and enhance regional connectivity. China has played a crucial role in regional connectivity and in promoting peace through not only the Belt and Road Initiative but also other economic development projects.

China is establishing economic and commercial connectivity with Afghanistan when the world has not yet given full recognition to the Taliban regime. Where the Western world has frozen Afghanistan’s assists and economic assistance, China has bridged the gap and filled the vacuum through investment, infrastructure development, and economic integration. In that context, China’s business diplomacy has paved the way to optimize economic footprints across Afghanistan.

Beijing is ready to support the implementation of Afghanistan transport projects, including a railway that would connect Uzbekistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul and Peshawar, in Pakistan, China’s special envoy to Afghanistan Yue Xiaoyong stated at the “Afghanistan: Security and Economic Development” conference in Tashkent. He also added, “Such megaprojects would contribute to lasting peace on Afghan land and strengthen regional interconnectedness.

Beijing sees Afghanistan as a bridge linking Central and South Asia.” The three nations agreed to build a 573km railroad with an annual capacity to transport up to 20 million tons of goods on February 2, 2021, following negotiations in Tashkent. The cost of the project is estimated at US$5 billion, which get the will access to Pakistani seaports on the Arabian Gulf to landlocked Uzbekistan and also open the gateway for Afghanistan’s economic integration.

According to the statement of Uzbekistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Aybek Arif the Transit Trade Agreement would help all three countries to expand their trade horizons. Moreover, it creates lowering trade costs, developing value chains and market access. Increase employment opportunities, improve regional infrastructure networks, and contributes towards economic diversification. Afghanistan the land of undiscovered minerals and resources has great potential for big markets.

The vacuum created by the US is nearly seemed filled economically and potentially by China through projects of mining and trade. It also complements increasing energy needs in South Asia and the existing energy surplus of Central Asia. When the route is completed, it crosses the Hindu-Kush mountain range and reaches an altitude of 3,500 meters which ranks among the highest railroads in the entire globe.

The transport will carry 3,500 to 5,000 containers of commercial goods from China in each round. Additionally, the Afghan Railway Authority announced that import and export tariffs on products traveling by rail will be drastically cut.

However, there are several significant logistical, infrastructure, security, and political challenges which will be taken into consideration before the project can become fully operational. Afghanistan is traditionally dependent on Pakistan’s seaports and land networks for its international trade. The border conflict between two states often disrupts their bilateral relations. Especially traders have to face a challenge at key security checkpoints.

But to attract companies and investors for labor work in Afghanistan could be another challenge as it will not be easy due to political chaos and security challenges. In that situation, Afghanistan should be considered Chinese and Russian military assistance until it built its formal security force. Another challenge is long-standing security issues also exist inside Afghanistan and along the shared border with China.

Afghanistan’s location is strategically ideal for China, offering a potential short and the most cost-effective routes for roads, railroads, pipelines, and electricity transmission lines between Central Asia and South Asia for the trade of containerized commodities. China is the sixth-largest importer of products into Afghan markets, after the United States, the UAE, Pakistan, India, and Kazakhstan.

Keeping in view the current geopolitical dimensions, the China-Afghanistan route seems a long way from being open to significant commercial traffic and trade. For that matter, infrastructure development along with potential stability and a better security environment can therefore be key to economic and regional connectivity for Afghanistan in the years to come.

Rabbia Bashir is an independent researcher and a Mphil student at Air University, Islamabad. She tweets @RomeoCharlie29.

• First published in PolicyEast

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