AFGHANISTAN’S RAILROAD FRENZY
The opening of Afghanistan’s first major railroad in August promises transformative economic and geopolitical changes that are yet to be fully understood. The recent completion of a railroad line from the Afghan-Uzbek border to Mazar-i-Sharif will be complemented by a railroad from Iran. Along with railroads planned by China and Pakistan, this will create economic synergies as Afghanistan is integrated with the railroads of its neighbors. Geopolitically, the Afghan railroads dovetail with China’s massive railroad program in Central Asia, Pakistan, and Iran. Further, as Iran, Pakistan, and Russia are hedging their bets on a U.S. troop withdrawal, railroads will strengthen their influence in Afghanistan. The railroad frenzy should be seen in this light.
BACKGROUND: Half a century ago the prospects of railroad transportation between Central Asia and its neighbors were dismissed as fantasies. Ringed by forbidding mountain ranges, Central Asia’s location doomed it to a “fairly low power potential” in world affairs, Nicolas Spykman noted. Because of climatic factors and the inexistent railroad connections in Afghanistan, Xinjiang, and Mongolia, strong direct relations between Central Asia and its neighbors were considered unfeasible, if not unwanted. Thus, the early 20th century visions of trans-continental empires across Central Asia, often associated with the figure of Sir Halford Mackinder, were reconsidered as natural obstacles proved overwhelming.
These barriers are now breaking up. Afghanistan and its vicinity are being covered with railroads and will soon be plugged into the railroad networks of China, Russia, Pakistan, and the Middle East. The inauguration of Afghanistan’s first railroad on August 20-21, running between Hairaton bordering Uzbekistan and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, is only the beginning of a wide-ranging railroad effort involving all regional powers and international development banks.
For example, an Iranian-funded railroad is being constructed from the Iranian town of Khaf to the western city of Herat, and the Chinese are planning a north-south railroad running from Tajikistan, via Afghanistan’s Aynak copper mine, to Pakistan. China is also planning a railroad line from Sher-Khan Bandar in Tajikistan via Mazar-i-Sharif to Herat, with a branch to the Turkmenistan Railroads line at Towraghondi. A second phase envisions a Chinese-funded line from Mazar-i-Sharif via Kabul and Jalalabad to Torkham near the Khyber Pass connecting Afghanistan and China. Pakistan, too, is looking at extending its Chaman line to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
These railroad projects link with massive railroad investments in neighboring states. John Garver, a forerunner in mapping these developments, detailed in a 2006 article China’s funding of several railroad links from its far-western province of Xinjiang to Central Asia, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia. Today, five years later, China is filling in the missing links in Afghanistan, Iran, and beyond. For example, in September last year China pledged US$ 2 billion for a 360-mile (580-kilometer) railroad running from Tehran through Hamadan, Malayer, and Kermanshah to the Iraqi border city of Khosrawi. Pakistan, a Chinese ally, assists in these endeavors as Pakistan Railroads launched a train service to Turkey last year thereby connecting China with Turkey overland.
These East-West rail dynamics are reinforced by North-South projects linking Afghanistan with its post-Soviet Central Asian neighbors. The expected conversion of NATO’s Northern Distribution Network – connecting Baltic and Caspian ports with Afghanistan via Russia, Central Asia, and the Caucasus by railroad – to civilian uses holds prospects of becoming a backbone in Afghanistan’s north-bound trade. Next month a demonstration train also is set to depart from the southern Kazakh city of Almaty to the port city of Bandar Abbas in Iran, connecting land-locked Central Asia with the Persian Gulf.
Why do railroads hold such vast potentials for Afghanistan? The reason is that Afghanistan is now located in one of the most densely penetrated regions by railroad in the world. Among the 50 states with the world’s longest networks of railroad, all of Afghanistan’s neighbors except for Tajikistan belong to this group. The nearby states of India, China, and Russia, meanwhile, have the world’s longest railroad networks next to the U.S. It is imperative that Afghanistan connects to these markets.
IMPLICATIONS: Four main implications can be derived from these developments. First, the expanding railroad ties across Afghanistan promise vast gains from trade and transit for the government in Kabul, Afghan consumers, and their counterparts in neighboring states. As trade with Central Asia, China, and the Middle East expands, Afghanistan will be plugged into the world economy, facilitating economic growth. Recent data from Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organization suggests that this is already happening and that Afghanistan’s heavy reliance on trade with Pakistan is being diversified, something which will be reinforced with the present northbound railroads.
Second, railroads will be bearers of cultural, economic, and political influence. While many actors are involved in the current railroad frenzy– including Japan, the U.S., Pakistan, Iran, and Russia – China stands out as the most committed and strategic of them. When seen in isolation, China’s investment into the Iran-Iraq railroad lines, for example, makes little sense. But when viewed as part of other China-sponsored links such as the Mashad-Tejen connection between Iran and Turkmenistan, it is evident that China is acquiring direct railroad access all the way to Iraq, through several different routes, and soon also via Afghanistan. This will fuel China’s western development program, diversify oil routes from seaborne transport via Malacca Strait, and plug it into the Caspian region, one of the world’s principal sources of unexploited oil and gas.
Third, further destabilization in Afghanistan, on the other hand, may quickly derail the potential benefits for Afghanistan, China, and the Central Asian states. With a resumption of the 1990s proxy war between neighboring states, the Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Iranians have direct rail access to Afghanistan and their cross-border ethnic factions. As Pakistan too is planning a railroad link to Kandahar, weapons and war materiel could flow along these lines, making the civil war both more deadly and the regional states’ participation more direct.
Fourth, some regional states are less enthusiastic of the present railroad lines across Afghanistan and neighboring areas. India and Russia, for example, probably fear Chinese encirclement as they see the growth of Beijing-sponsored railroads along their peripheries. Countermoves and a stronger Russian and Indian presence in Afghanistan and the wider Central Asian region are therefore to be expected.
CONCLUSIONS: Afghanistan’s integration into the regional railroad system promises substantial economic gains for the country itself and its neighbors. Industrialization, exports of agricultural produce, and exploitation of natural resources will require uninterrupted and reliable transport lines. Since rail is a preferred mode of transportation for Afghanistan’s neighbors, it should be prioritized by Kabul. Geopolitical motives will almost certainly lurk behind investments in Afghan railroads and few physical assets will assist China’s continental geopolitics as much as railroads. Along with Chinese investment in railroad infrastructure in states as distant as Iraq, this regional presence will make India and probably also Russia increasingly nervous. Railroads are vital to Afghanistan’s growth but they may also be a means of destabilization if neighboring powers let crude geopolitical calculations trump regional stability. Regardless of which, railroads will shape Afghanistan’s future and the West should seek to channel these forces in a positive direction.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Nicklas Norling is a PhD Candidate at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a Nonresident Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He can be reached at email@example.com.