Tashkent conference to set out roadmap for ambitious trans-Afghan railway

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan met in Tashkent on 2 February to discuss the construction of a multi-billion dollar railway running north to south across eastern Afghanistan.

The line is expected to run from Uzbekistan through the northeast Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul, Kandahar and the Pakistani city Peshawar. From there, the line will link to the main Pakistan broad-gauge system.

Officials from the three countries are holding talks in the Uzbek capital with the aim of agreeing a joint action plan.

The first stage of the effort will be a joint expedition to survey the route and investigate the terrain conditions. The parties will also agree on a preliminary feasibility study for the project, including possible finance mechanisms.

According to Uzbekistan broadcaster Uzreport, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, Islamic Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the International Finance Corporation have expressed interest in funding the project.

Any project would also depend on progress in the peace talks currently taking place in Doha, Qatar, between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The railway project is being driven by Uzbekistan, which is looking to establish itself as the main transit hub between Central Asia and the ports of Pakistan.

In December, Makhkamov Ilkham, Uzbekistan’s transport minister, called on Pakistan leader Imran Khan during his official visit to Islamabad to discuss the project. This was followed later in the month by intergovernmental negotiations between the three parties, and a joint request to international financial institutions to discuss funding.

A recent paper from Uzbek’s Indian embassy said the rail link created "unique prospects" for developing and stabilising the Afghan economy and "forming interregional and intercontinental transit flows".

Construction of the proposed railway is also expected to reduce the time and cost of transportation between South Asia and Europe. According to the embassy’s paper, the delivery time of goods from Russia’s border with Kazakhstan and Pakistan’s commercial capital of Karachi will be 16-18 days, a saving of almost a third.

A line would also provide a means of exploiting the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, which at present has almost no rail network, although a link was built from Uzbekistan to the Mazar-i-Sharif by the Americans, completed in November 2010.

In 2018, Uzbekistan pledged to provide $500m to part-fund the construction of a 657km railway from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat, near the Iranian border. That was also decided after an international conference in Tashkent.

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 (see further reading).

Image ©GCR, illustration by Denis Carrier

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