Railing Central Asia Into the World Economy

If there is one key to unlocking the doors of any economy, it is certainly a railway. Since its invention and construction between Manchester and Liverpool in the United Kingdom, railways have dramatically boosted trade, which is why they also played high political and military importance. From the 19th century, the British used to build railways to transport ores and goods out of their colonies in Africa and India and to quickly send military support to suppress uprisings.

The same policy was used by other European empires, including Russia, which competed with Britain during their colonial expansion to Central Asia. This period became known in history as the Great Game. As a result of this competition, the first railways were built in South and Central Asia by London and Saint Petersburg to ensure military control over the territories. The first railway built in Central Asia – the Trans-Aral railway – was designed to ensure quick military reach from the Urals to captured ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Tashkent, as well as to transport cotton, which was in demand in industrializing imperial Russia. The railroads built by the British and the Russians in Asia never converged, which fractured the region that used to be a single geographic and economic entity before colonization and during the centuries of the Silk Road.

While the British colonial rule in India ended in 1947, the Russian control over Central Asia has persisted even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among the reasons is the fact that Central Asia remained isolated by the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the sanctioned Iran, and the Russian policies to effectively tie-up the region to itself through treaties like the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, purposefully blocking any gateways or infrastructure that would bypass Russia.

These factors have started to reach its end just recently.

First, following the launch of the Belt and Road initiative, which was announced by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Astana in 2013, new oil and gas pipelines, railroads and highways connecting Central Asia to mainland China have been built.

Secondly, the US forces withdrew from Afghanistan last year following an agreement with Taliban, in accordance with which the latter have abandoned their atrocious inhumane policies towards its population once they got into power.

Finally, with Russia under severe sanctions, Western governments and their Central Asian counterparts are now keen to develop a new outlet to the world. This resulted in a project which seemed highly unrealistic just two years ago, but not anymore – to connect Central Asia with Pakistan and India by a new railroad.

The Central Asian countries– Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have a lot to offer to the global economy and to the markets in South Asia, including oil and gas, and cheap electricity to the energy hungry 1.6 billion populous India and Pakistan. 40 million residents of Afghanistan itself (along with Iran) are currently among the largest consumers of high-quality wheat grain from Kazakhstan (which is among the world’s top 10 grains exporters). Due to the war in Ukraine, Pakistan is also exploring potential for opening new routes to Kazakhstan wheat and for access to cheap hydro energy from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to boost industries in its northern regions.

Central Asia can also provide mineral resources, while in return receive industrial and other products from the warm seaports of South Asia. The main hindrance used to be the war in Afghanistan, but now that it is over, a safe passage of goods is feasible. The new Taliban administration has received several official delegations from Afghanistan’s neighbors.  Among the most recent was led by Deputy Prime Minister – Minister of Trade of Kazakhstan Serik Zhumangarin. The talks in mid-April concluded in pledges to boost bilateral trade almost two-fold next year, while Astana said it could accept Taliban’s diplomatic mission this year.

Kazakhstan’s leadership is actively seeking to deliver its commodities through alternative routes that bypass Russia, with which it has a border of approximately 7,000 kilometers, the world’s longest continuous land border. In addition, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov recently visited Iran to resolve the damage inflicted by the broken logistic of trading through Russia’s territory.

It is worth noting that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are already actively trading with Afghanistan. A railroad has been built from Uzbekistan to Afghan Mazar-i-Sharif, which is delivering most of the Kazakh exports to that country too.

But how would the construction of a new railroad across Afghanistan look like?

There are three possible routes currently under consideration. The first option, the shortest and most convenient for all stakeholders, is to extend the currently existing rail link from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul and then further to Islamabad, where it could connect to the existing Pakistani railway to help reach the seaport of Karachi. Although this is the shortest route that suits everyone, the mountainous landscape of the northern Afghanistan makes it the costliest one as well, with an estimated price tag of $8 billion for 783 kilometers of the railroad involving 80 tunnels.

The second possible route for the new railroad would go through the western areas of Central Asia, namely, from Turkmenistan (which is already connected by railroads to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) via the plains of the western and southern provinces of Afghanistan to South Pakistan (Sekherabad – Shindnt – Farah – Kandaghar). Although it is a much more economical project and covers more populous regions of Afghanistan, it does not cover the Afghan capitals and any part of Uzbekistan, which brings additional political concerns.

The third option is the “horizontal” route from Mazar-i-Sharif to Andkhoy and further to Herat, which already has access to Iran. It is of interest primarily to China and Uzbekistan. The Chinese want to reach Iran on their own track, as Iran and China use European standards of railroad gauge, and thus there is no need to change wagons or wheelsets. The Afghans would also like this standard, but all the existing roads available to them are of the Soviet standard (Hairaton, Akina, Serkherabad). In Pakistan, there is a third, even wider, gauge standard. Kazakhstan already has access to the Herat region through Turkmenistan and there is no particular Kazakh interest in this third project.

Ultimately, having all three options for the new railway is already more of a technical issue, while the main political objective of carving out Central Asia out of the sanctioned Russia gives it a positive outlook to get the project financed. Pakistan would be very interested in any of the routes, but its current economic situation does not allow it to invest significant sums into the initiative. The project could be supported both by China (as part of its flagship Belt and Road initiative) or by the West, as the railroad from Central Asia to South Asia would imply certain economic and political factors in play.

It is also worth noting that the construction of any of these railroad routes would considerably diminish decades-long suffering of the Afghan people, stimulating peace, stability and better welfare for the entire region.

[Photo by Rolly, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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