The writer is a UK-based analyst and has worked with universities in three Central Asian countries
Uzbekistan’s eagerness to improve rail links between the Central and South Asia countries has nudged many global financial bodies like the World Bank, the European Investment Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to express their interest to contribute in the project.
According to Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Investment and Foreign Trade (MIFT), the World Bank has indicated a willingness to finance the fieldwork and to provide technical assistance in the design for the construction of a railway network between Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul and the Pakistani city of Peshawar.
After discussions with Anna Bjerde, vice president of the World Bank for Europe and Central Asia, the ministry declared that this railway project connecting Afghanistan with Pakistan will cost around US$ 5 billion. It will involve the construction of a 573-kilometer (356 miles) railway line with an annual transit potential of up to 20 million tons of cargo.
The new transport corridor will improve connectivity between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and further to the states of Southeast Asia. Its construction will have three key advantages. Firstly, it will significantly reduce the time and cost of transporting goods between South Asia and Europe through Central Asia.
Secondly, the new trans-Afghan railway, which provides access to the three Pakistani seaports of Karachi, Bin Qasim, and Gwadar, will dramatically increase the transit potential and cargo flow to Central Asia. Thirdly, the initiative will revive the region's historical role as a connecting link between Europe and Asia through the shortest land route.
As part of the vision for wider regional connectivity Russian Railways has proposed to Uzbekistan to look into deeper cooperation in building a Russia-India transport corridor through Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The company anticipated this initiative could draw Central Asian states to closer technical cooperation to mutually earn long-term rewards via expanded connectivity.
Consultations between Uzbek transport authorities and the chief of the Russian Railways this week also underlined that this project will reduce the time and cost of transportation of goods from East and South Asia to Central Asia and Europe by 30%. During the discussions, further steps were discussed to increase the use of the railway corridors between Russia and Uzbekistan by upgrading and optimizing the conditions of cargo transportation.
Russian Railways designing project
The design and technical documentation of the Mazar-i-Sharif - Kabul - Peshawar railway will be undertaken by the Russian Railways, Uzbek officials announced following talks with Russian Railways Chief Oleg Belozerov in Tashkent on May 19.
"An agreement was reached aimed at the comprehensive preparation of the project, including the development of technical documentation, and the early start of construction," the Uzbek press service said in a statement issued in Tashkent.
Strategic planners in Tashkent see this as the launch of a new paradigm for regional development in which Afghanistan will provide a connecting link between Central and South Asia for mutually beneficial interregional cooperation. They believe that it is important to recognize the new strategic opportunities and to take advantage of them by intensifying dialogue between all regional countries and external players.
Eldor Aripov head of Uzbekistan’s Strategic Studies Institute says that the Trans-Afghan corridor will open several advantages for the Central Asian countries. Not only will it provide the shortest path to the promising markets of South Asia, but will also diversify transport flows and significantly reduce export-import costs. The launch of the Mazar-i-Sharif-Peshawar railway will also create a powerful platform for achieving inclusive economic growth in Central and South Asia.
Project will help to stabilize Afghanistan
This project is also seen to create a unique opportunity for ensuring peace and stability in Afghanistan by stimulating growth and creating tens of thousands of new jobs – necessary conditions for the development and exploitation of rich reserves of minerals (copper, tin, zinc, iron ore, marble, granite, travertine, and others).
Uzbek officials believe that the new rail link will significantly contribute to ensuring regional security and stability of the region. They anticipate that a multiplier effect including the construction of roadside infrastructure, creation of conditions for the development of rich mineral resources along the railway route will help in the creation of thousands of jobs.
The resultant economic benefits will entice players in the Afghan conflict and external forces to work for a peaceful settlement and early stabilization of the situation in the war-torn country. And with financial gain, many will realize that trading is much more profitable than fighting. A regional consensus built on such realization will prove far effective than any political agreement or geopolitical deal.
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