For many years, Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have been attempting to gain access to open waters due to their landlocked status. To facilitate this, two routes have been proposed: Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan and Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Iran. The Trans-Afghan railway project has been discussed in the past, with initial studies conducted by the previous government. Recently, Taliban officials have stated that they have provided the opportunity to implement this project, which is of great importance to the trade and economy of the three countries. Nevertheless, the Taliban’s rise to power has presented many challenges to the project, which this article will discuss in brief.
1- Project Cost
The Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan tripartite railway project, which is 760 kilometers in length, is estimated to cost 4.8 billion US dollars to construct. Preliminary studies suggest that it will take five years to complete and put into operation. Unfortunately, due to economic conditions, none of the three countries involved are able to afford the construction cost of nearly five billion US dollars. Despite efforts from Pakistan and Uzbekistan to secure funds from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and other financial sources, they have been unsuccessful. Furthermore, the lack of a legitimate government in Afghanistan trusted by financial institutions and the international community has made it difficult or even impossible to finance the project. As a result, no other banks or countries have agreed to invest or participate in the project. Due to the economic embargo imposed on the Taliban regime, transferring money to Afghanistan through banks is difficult. A small amount necessary for the initial survey of this project was paid in cash to the Taliban through the political representatives of Pakistan and Uzbekistan. Consequently, it is improbable that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and other countries will invest in the implementation of this project. Furthermore, the financial consortium that was previously formed to invest in and take part in this project dissolved after the Taliban assumed power.
2- Taliban Regime Struggles with Technical and Management Shortages
Since the Taliban came to power, most people hired or transferred to the leadership and other departments of the railway administration have been educated in religious schools. However, for the design, construction, and operation of the large Afghanistan-Trans project, professionally trained and experienced employees are required. The railway department had been established several years prior and needed personnel to implement it. Under the control of the Taliban, however, the department has deteriorated in terms of management and technical capacity. It has been over a year since the Taliban failed to complete the remaining five percent of the 30-km Aqina-Andkhoy railway project. Additionally, the Taliban have been unable to provide the opportunity to implement the 43-kilometer Khaf-Herat railway project, which was built by a foreign company, and only 35% of it is completed. Given this, it is unclear how the Taliban would be able to meet the demands of such a large project.
Contrary to their claims, the Taliban have yet to successfully manage the procedure of the previous railway projects. They have been unable to operate, maintain, and take care of the Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway line, as Uzbekistan has maintained its influence and dominance. For approximately a decade, an Uzbek company has been responsible for the operation, maintenance, and care of the railway line of Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif, in return for an exorbitant amount of 18 million dollars annually. Recently, the Taliban assigned responsibilities to a Kazakh company, signing a contract for an annual budget of about five million US dollars. However, Uzbekistan opposed this work and did not allow the locomotives of the Kazakh company to enter its territory. Uzbekistan imposed a policy on the Taliban government that did not permit non-Uzbek companies to operate, forcing the Taliban to end their contract with the Kazakh company and allow the Uzbek company to look after the project. This opposition between the Taliban and Uzbekistan resulted in the blockage of the route for several days, causing traders to lose millions of dollars. Consequently, the Taliban do not possess the technical personnel and equipment to implement the Afghanistan-Trans project, nor the facilities to exploit this project.
The neighboring countries of Afghanistan have different railway gauges, which has become a major issue in determining the gauge of the Afghan railway. Due to a lack of funds, equipment and professional personnel, Afghanistan has been forced to accept different gauges. For example, the Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway line was built with 1520 gauge, the Khaf-Herat railway line with 1435 gauge, and the Kandahar-Spin Boldak railway line (which has not yet been built) was designed by Pakistanis with 1676 gauge. The Afghanistan-Trans railway project, which is a continuation of the Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway, is planned to be constructed with 1520 gauge, while the gauge of the Pakistan Railway is 1676. If this project is implemented, the bogie must be changed on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan due to the difference in gauges, which would increase the duration and cost of the transfer.
Afghanistan faces a challenge with the 1520 gauge, as the Khaf-Herat railway line is built with the 1435 gauge. Iran is attempting to construct the railway line to Mazar-e-Sharif with the same 1435 gauge, while Pakistan is attempting to build the Kandahar-Spin Boldak railway line with 1676 gauge. This difference in gauge in Afghanistan’s railways will cause numerous issues in the transit process and will also create difficulties with imports within Afghanistan.
ISIS had posed a direct threat to the Trans-Afghan railway project. Consequently, the tripartite delegation of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan, which conducted a preliminary survey of this project in June 2022, allocated the most funds to security measures, such as renting armored cars and hiring security forces to protect the technical team. Since ISIS has carried out multiple operations in Kabul and Herat provinces and has directly threatened this project, it could be a serious impediment to its progress. This is especially true since the project route passes through mountainous and problematic areas, making it impossible to provide security if ISIS is active in Afghanistan. Additionally, since the TTP and other militia groups are waging military operations against the Pakistani government, this could be another threat to the successful implementation of this project.
5- Topography of the Project Route
Based on the initial survey, this project is set to traverse mountainous regions and rugged valleys. From a technical standpoint, railway routes typically pass through even terrain so that the gradient is low and large arches are avoided. This makes it difficult to adjust the project in terms of the inclination or gradient of the curves. Additionally, the project passes through areas with dry climates, which makes its adaptation, operation, and transfers challenging during the cold and snowy season.
6- Lack of Construction Materials
Given the current conditions in Afghanistan, fewer industrial companies are operating in the country, and none have committed to providing railway construction materials. As a result, all materials for the project must be imported from other countries, making the project costly, time-consuming, and difficult to implement. Therefore, Uzbekistan is the best option for procuring the necessary building materials for the project, and one of the reasons for Uzbekistan’s interest in this project is the potential benefits it will gain from its implementation.
7- Regional Countries Face Conflict of Interests
The implementation of this project is in conflict with the interests of some countries in the region, leading to the possibility of Iran opposing it. Iran is attempting to link the Khaf-Herat railway line to the Hairatan-Mazar-e-Sharif railway line, as this would increase their exports to Afghanistan and allow Central Asian countries to access the Chabahar seaport. Consequently, a high-ranking Iranian government delegation visited Kabul during the previous government to discuss the implementation of this project. Furthermore, several Uzbek businessmen and economic sectors have resisted the Afghanistan-Trans project, as they deem Iran’s route and Chabahar port to be safer and more beneficial than Pakistan’s route, given the current conditions in Pakistan.
8- Land Acquisition
The Afghanistan-Trans railway project is being hindered by the presence of numerous privately-owned lands, resulting in increased costs and delays.
Despite the economic and commercial importance of the Afghanistan-Trans railway project to all three countries, it is impossible to implement it due to financial constraints, conflicting interests, and a lack of managerial and technical capacity, particularly in the current climate. None of the three countries can afford to pay their financial share, and the topography of the project route, land acquisition, lack of railway construction materials, lack of technical and managerial capacity in Afghanistan, and security issues all contribute to the cost of the project and make it difficult to implement. Furthermore, until a legitimate government is established in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that large financial sources such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, or any other country, will be willing to invest in the construction of this project.