A bleak future for Trans-Afghan Railway - Hindustan Times
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A bleak future for Trans-Afghan Railway

Mar 19, 2024 03:39 PM IST

This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

The Trans-Afghan Railway project envisioned to connect Uzbekistan and Pakistan through Afghanistan, has garnered both attention and speculation in the recent past. This railway line will be an extension of the already existing and operational Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. According to the plan prepared by the Afghan Railways, the Trans-Afghan Railway will cross Mazar-i-Sharif, Samangan, Pul-e-Khumri, Kabul, and eventually reach the Kharlachi border crossing in Kurram in Pakistan.

Afghan refugees with their belongings arrive on a truck from Pakistan, at a registration centre near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province. (AFP) PREMIUM
Afghan refugees with their belongings arrive on a truck from Pakistan, at a registration centre near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar province. (AFP)

The project was first proposed in 2018 by Uzbekistan. It's worth noting that Afghanistan had a democratic government at the time. As planned, the almost 600 km railway would minimise the distance between Uzbekistan and other Central Asian nations and the Indian Ocean ports in Pakistan. It will also shorten the time it takes to transport commodities from Uzbekistan to Pakistani seaports, from 30-35 days to 10-15 days. A decrease of 30-35% is also anticipated in transportation expenses. It also said that during the Trans-Afghan corridor's early years, up to 10 million tonnes of freight might be transported annually.

The participating countries argue that it holds the potential to transform regional dynamics by fostering economic cooperation. In February 2021, a roadmap for the Trans-Afghan Railway was established with plans to hasten the project, and construction was scheduled to begin in September 2021. However, the idea remains a topic of discussion, with little action taken on the ground so far. This project has lately gained traction as a result of increased sanctions imposed on Russia following its military conflict with Ukraine. Furthermore, Central Asian countries seek to diversify their transportation routes away from Russia. This would also reduce the danger of secondary sanctions on these countries, which are economically and politically close to Moscow. However, the project is not without challenges.

The Trans-Afghan Railway is criticised for being financially unsustainable. Concerns have been raised over the project's ability to raise the required funding to be completed as well as its economic viability. The countries that are involved are unable to offer financial support for this initiative. Pakistan has been confronting significant economic and political challenges in recent years. In the last year, low economic growth (-0.5%), combined with 29.6% inflation and 8% unemployment has worsened the situation even more. Furthermore, the 22% interest rate has significantly harmed the economic environment without accomplishing its declared goal of curbing inflation. Pakistan likewise struggles with a low foreign exchange reserve, with the State Bank of Pakistan holding only $8.2 billion. Over $25 billion is required to meet debt obligations.

Afghanistan's Taliban administration is still not recognised by any country, and their economic status is similarly alarming. Uzbekistan's modest economic development is also insufficient to support this project. If the governments that are involved are unable to fund this initiative, they will need to rely on financial institutions. While collaboration with the Taliban is problematic, human rights criticism undermines the railway's worldwide presence. Critical infrastructure issues may impede project completion in a resource-constrained environment, such as Afghanistan.

The unstable security environment in the region is another major barrier. The growth of the railway is threatened by spoilers, organisations that want to obstruct progress, casting doubt on the viability and sustainability of the initiative. Afghanistan's Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K), has been expanding since the Taliban regained control in 2021. ISIS-K is increasing its attacks in the region and is expanding its presence in Afghanistan. Other al-Qaeda "remnants" are also attempting to regroup, although their immediate threat pales in comparison to IS-K. For this project, these groups provide the greatest security risk. Furthermore, there have been ups and downs in Pakistan's relationship with Taliban 2.0, particularly concerning border disputes that might affect the development of the Trans-Afghan Railway.

The Trans-Afghan Railway is crucial for Uzbekistan since it intends to improve regional connectivity and economic links. Since coming to office, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has worked hard to establish himself as a regional leader. However, Uzbekistan is a doubly landlocked country that relies on Russia and other Central Asian countries for foreign trade. To remove this bottleneck, he has been pushing the Trans-Afghan Railway while understanding that its realisation is practically difficult in the foreseeable future. Uzbekistan is also actively coordinating with other nations to unfreeze Afghanistan's assets to provide humanitarian assistance. There have been assertions that Uzbekistan is receiving financial assistance from Qatar for this project, yet this is not the only challenge that this project faces.

Recent media updates indicate that work is progressing, with the project receiving a green light. In addition, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan have inked a tripartite railway link project, emphasising regional cooperation and connectivity. Nonetheless, the Trans-Afghan Railway's future remains uncertain, with several impediments and setbacks. The project, which had previously shown promise, was momentarily halted, raising concerns about its viability and progress. Geopolitical turbulence in Afghanistan, along with ongoing security concerns, has contributed to delays and uncertainty over the railway's construction and operation.

This article is authored by Pravesh Kumar Gupta, associate fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi.

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