Afghanistan’s Central Asian Road to Prosperity

For the first time in centuries, it is possible to connect Central and South Asia via modern transport and energy corridors across Afghanistan. When completed, these projects would transform Eurasian security, dramatically increase regional economic activity, and could finally bring peace to Afghanistan. They can even revive the Great Silk Road.

Progress on planned projects should therefore be of interest to the region’s influential neighbors – Russia, China and India – and the United States, which has spent at least $ 2 trillion in Afghanistan over the past 20 years. But most of the countries of the world consider Central Asia as unknown land, and has so far paid little attention to important recent developments.

In February, for example, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited three Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan – to enlist their support for transport projects with Afghanistan. and the countries of South Asia. Kamilov was traveling at the request of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who in his December 29 message to the country’s parliament highlighted cooperation with South Asia and the promotion of peace in Afghanistan as his top regional priorities.

Specifically, the talks focused on the construction of the Kabul Corridor Railway from Termez in Uzbekistan to the Pakistani city of Peshawar via Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul in Afghanistan. The railway could carry up to 20 million tonnes of goods per year, and the section from Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif, built by Uzbekistan, is already operational. The remaining 573 kilometers to Peshawar will have to cross the Hindu Kush mountain range, where the passes are over 3,500 meters above sea level, making it one of the highest mountain railways in the world. world.

The section of the Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul railway, at a preliminary estimated cost of $ 5 billion, will be built mainly with borrowed funds. At the end of December, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan launched a joint appeal to international financial institutions to support the project. Subject to funding, construction could begin in September of this year.

The existing highway between Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul will ensure the delivery of equipment and construction materials, while the power lines from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the Afghan capital follow the same route, allowing electrify the rail link.

In Peshawar, the railway will connect the arriving trains to the Pakistani transport system, thereby connecting the rail networks of Central Asia and Eurasia with those of South Asia and providing access to the Pakistani ports of Karachi, Qasim and Gwadar. It is estimated that the new railway will cut freight transport times from Central Asia to Pakistan by 30 to 15 days and reduce transport costs by 30% to 35%.

The apparent reason for prioritizing access to Pakistani ports over other options is that the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar route is the shortest. But there’s a bigger one: the Kabul corridor, along with the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan transport corridor, will connect four economically powerful Eurasian regions – Europe, China, Russia and South Asia – via the ‘Central Asia.

Today, the main transport route from Central Asia to the southern seas, via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, is no longer considered the most attractive. Economists estimate that transporting a container from Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, to Karachi would cost around $ 1,400 to $ 1,600, or about half the cost of transporting it from Tashkent to Bandar Abbas ($ 2,600 to $ 3,000) . In addition, international economic sanctions against Iran will complicate any plans there.

At the end of 2020, the construction of the Afghan section of another megaproject linking Central Asia and South Asia began: the TAPI gas pipeline, named after the four countries it will cross: Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The 1,814 kilometer pipeline will connect the Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan to the Indian city of Fazilka via Herat and Kandahar in Afghanistan and the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Multan. It will have a capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of gas per year and will cost between 8 and 10 billion dollars.

Although security concerns have long cast doubt on the viability of the TAPI pipeline, completion is now slated for December 2023. Importantly, a high-ranking Taliban delegation visited Turkmenistan on February 6, pledging to support the project. There are indications that the United States, which has long been a supporter of the pipeline, may have made the trip easier.

Central Asia has always been a politically sensitive region, part of what former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “grand chessboard”. When implementing such important projects, it is therefore necessary to take into account the geopolitical positions of the main regional players such as America, Russia and China. But for now at least, it seems everyone has an interest in Central Asia and Afghanistan being economically vibrant and politically stable, rather than poor and conflict-ridden.

Despite the importance of the new flagship projects, it is essential to continue cooperation in Central Asia. Historically, the region has prospered most when it acts as a “crossroads civilization”, channeling and transforming Eurasian trade and economic and cultural forces.

In fact, Central Asia became a world leader in economic development, trade, technology, manufacturing, and intellectual life during the period called its golden age, when it was open. , dynamic and willing and able to learn and adapt from others.

There is no reason that Central Asia cannot be successful again. Practicing a form of open regionalism, Central Asians have found many reasons to cooperate for several centuries. A return to this role would be good news for the whole world – and deserve the attention of its leaders.

Djoomart Otorbaev is a former Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan. © Project Syndicate, 2021

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