Work has started on the Afghan side of a rail link between Khaf in northeast Iran and Herat in Afghanistan, one of many rail projects planned for Afghanistan, and one of the few to have broken ground.
The project was declared open earlier this month at a ceremony attended by top officials from both countries, including Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi, Iran’s minister for roads, Mahmoud Baligh, Afghanistan’s minister for public works and Eklil Hakimi, its finance minister.
"This project enhances the bilateral relations of Iran and Afghanistan, and it links Afghanistan with Europe, China, and Central Asia via the transit corridors of Iran," Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi said, according to Iran’s Mehr news agency.
The Iranians have already completed 90% of the link on their side of the border.
One of the main concerns over the railway would be maintaining its security: the Taliban are present in the south of the province, although the proposed route of the railway is under government control. Â
Baligh reassured those attending the ceremony that the government would provide security for workers building the railway.
Afghan finance minister Eklil Hakimi said that the track would increase the value of trade between the two countries from $2m a year to $6m.
However, the construction of a secure, modern railway has wider significance for Afghanistan and its neighbours. Â
At present, Afghanistan has almost no rail network. The development of one is regarded as essential for the country’s economic development. In 2007 the US Geological Survey estimated Afghanistan’s mineral wealth at $1 trillion, including so much lithium that an internal Pentagon memo called it the "Saudi Arabia" of that metal.
Other valuations have put the total figure at three times this.
In 2011, seven Indian companies acquired rights to mine central Afghanistan’s Hajigak region, thought to contain Asia’s largest deposit of iron ore. The Indian government had pledged to spend $2bn in developing supporting infrastructure.
Earlier this year the governments of Afghanistan, India and Iran signed the Chabahar port agreement, which would make the Iranian port of Chabahar Afghanistan’s link with world markets. Work on expanding the port began last year, under the aegis of a joint venture between India’s Kandla Port Trust and Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust.
Image: One of Afghanistan’s few existing railways in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province (Julian-G. Albert/Wikimedia Commons)