Greater Central Asia to be entangled by railway octopus
The new land route, alternative to sea route, will link the EU countries with India and Southeast Asian countries. In Tashkent, a protocol was signed for the construction of a railway line from Mazar-i-Sharif through Kabul to Peshawar and further to Pakistan's ports of Gwadar and Karachi. They plan to build a number of high-voltage power lines Surkhan – Puli-Khumri – Doshi – Surabai – Jelalalabad – Peshawar along the railway. According to the organizers, this will not only ensure that the railway works effectively, but will also help stabilize the situation in Afghanistan.
It's not the only railway project in the Greater Central Asia region, which Tashkent is preparing to implement. The five-year program to improve Uzbekistan's transport infrastructure and diversify foreign trade routes was adopted in 2017. According to the Uzbek Foreign Ministry, the document provides for the practical implementation of several international transport corridors, including Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman, Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China and the trans-Afghan route, which provides access to the seaports of Iran (Bandar Abbas and Chabahar) and Pakistan (Gwadar and Karachi).
The road to Turkmenistan, where the railway bridges across the Amu Darya were opened this May, started its operation. This gives Uzbekistan access to the Caspian and South Caucasus and further to the Black Sea ports of Turkey, Romania and other countries. Construction of the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran route is frozen until a political decision is made on the project. The deterioration of the situation in the Near and Middle East, as well as around Iran complicates the situation.
The project to build the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railway line is promising. Its implementation may provide employment to some 30 thousand Afghans and will allow Kabul to obtain annual benefits of $400-500 million from transit, according to experts. "In general, the practical implementation of these initiatives will transform Central Asia not only into an international transit hub, but also a key link in the transcontinental economic space between South Asia, the Asia-Pacific Region, the CIS, Europe and the Middle East," Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry said on Monday following the presentation of Uzbek transport projects held in Washington.
According to director of the Tashkent Center for Research Initiatives 'Ma'no' Bakhtiyor Ergashev (Uzbekistan), widespread external support, not only from the interested countries of the region, but also from the U.S., will contribute to the successful implementation of the railway project at the current stage. Therefore, the project has every chance to be implemented in the foreseeable future.
Andrei Kazantsev, director of the Center for Central Asia and Afghanistan at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) of Russian Foreign Ministry, believes that this project fits into American logic, but it is not yet known whether the U.S. will provide it with financial and political support. "Washington has its own old project in the framework of the Greater Central Asia geopolitical concept - 'New Silk Road'. The goal is to develop transport routes in southern Afghanistan, as well as integrate Central Asia, Afghanistan with South Asia. But it was a project of the president Barack Obama. After Donald Trump came to power, the White House's agenda for Afghanistan has changed significantly. Therefore, the United States lost interest in this project. As for Russia, Moscow has a common concept of laying the North-South transport corridor, but it doesn't play a key role. Perhaps, it could take part in these projects - as they do not contradict the Russian position," Andrei Kazantsev told Vestnik Kavkaza.
Doctor of Historical Sciences, expert on Central Asia and the Middle East Alexander Knyazev noted that the railway construction project presented by Uzbekistan is a reanimation of the Indo-Volga railway project that existed in the 1870s. In the 19th century, the project was hampered by the "uncertainty of the geopolitical position of Afghanistan." After almost a century and a half, history repeats itself, and the discussion of any trans-Afghan communications — whether railways or gas pipelines — goes with the same remark about the uncertainty of the situation in Afghanistan.
"Tashkent has been trying for several years to find the means and pave the way for building a railway line across the Afghan territory from Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat, with further connections to the Iranian railway network and Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf. Tashkent's willingness to ensure the U.S. loyalty, which controls the situation in Afghanistan, forces them to adhere to a Afghan policy line, contrary to Moscow’s interests in the Afghan direction. It’s not by chance that in the project under discussion, Russia and Kazakhstan take a non-committal position, expressing their willingness to discuss it, but not reaffirming their willingness to participate," Knyazev told Vestnik Kavkaza.
According to the expert, Russia is interested in meridional transport corridors. Hypothetically, the Russian side (and the Kazakh side) would have shown more interest in the railway corridor project, which exists only in the form of a political idea, which, connecting the north of Kyrgyzstan with the south, would connect Kyrgyzstan with Tajikistan and with the Pakistani railway network, only indirectly affecting the north-east of Afghanistan's troubled territory. Such a project would bring Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan out of the transport impasse, reducing their transit dependence on Tashkent, but at the same time making it even more dependent on Moscow. Perhaps this is a project of the future, but even in theory it comes in conflict with the interests of Uzbekistan. Indeed, Tashkent is not just trying to become a region-wide transport hub, but also to improve its regional political status.
The railway from Uzbekistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan is contrary to the interests of China as well, which has its own views on the trans-Afghan transport projects going through the territory of Uzbekistan and are designed to diversify commodity flows. For example, the project of an automobile and subsequently railway road from China to Afghanistan's Badakhshan, and then divided into two branches: through Mazar-i-Sharif, and through Kabul and Kandahar, with further connections to Iran. However, in making an effective assessment of the Afghan situation's development perspectives, Beijing has so far refrained from starting any work on the ground. Moreover, China has a well-known China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is already in operation with a railway segment on a large part, and which crosses the entire territory of Pakistan from north to south. It is along this corridor through which the majority of Chinese goods for Afghanistan are shipped, and Beijing does not need any competitors in this matter.
Another problem of all trans-Afghan transportation lines is the fact that Afghanistan doesn't have enough both commodity potential and capacity of the Afghan market. Numerous railway projects - even those backed up by some marketing appeal - are designed exclusively for transit. Today, this transit - in the objectively necessary volumes - is carried by road, being controlled by very powerful shadow groups, primarily Pakistani ones. It may be recalled that one of the main managers in creating the famous Taliban movement was the Peshawar-based transport mafia, to which the Taliban were supposed to provide a favourable treatment in the early 1990s. This mafia's channels of influence on the Taliban have not gone away, and one can only think about the attitude of the Taliban groups, which control most of the country’s territory, to the construction planned by Uzbekistan.