The development of interaction with Afghanistan has been defined as one of the priority directions in the framework of Uzbekistan’s new regional policy aimed at building constructive and mutually beneficial relations with neighboring countries. Uzbekistan has always advocated for the soonest stabilization of situation in that country as an important condition of ensuring regional security, and a more favorable environment for developing the Uzbek economy, attracting investments and reinvigoration of foreign economic activity.
At the same time, profound shifts have occurred with regard to Afghanistan, which is increasingly seen as an integral part of Central Asia. The final document of the Consultative Meeting of the Heads of Central Asian States in Tashkent in 2019 enshrined a regional consensus on supporting the peace process and involving Afghanistan in regional connectivity and infrastructure projects.
In March 2018, Tashkent hosted a high-level international conference on Afghanistan: “The Peace Process, Security Cooperation and Regional Cooperation.” In his speech at the conference, the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan Mr. Shavkat Mirziyoyev emphasized the importance of implementing the trans-afghan transport and communication projects in Afghanistan to develop intercontinental transport corridors from East to West and from North to South by the shortest routes.
The Head of our State set a goal to intensify cooperation with South Asian countries and work on creating the Trans-Afghan transport corridor in 2020. The trilateral working group meeting was held in Tashkent with the participation of government delegations of Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan to implement the Mazar-e-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar railroad project in February 2021.
The International Conference «Central and South Asia: regional interconnectedness. Challenges and opportunities» was initiated and conducted in order to address these challenges. In his speech at the conference, the President of Uzbekistan paid particular attention to the construction of transport and logistics infrastructure that would effectively connect Central and South Asia. It was stressed that the construction of Termez-Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad would allow to fully realize the transit potential of the two regions, generate the shortest route and significantly reduce the time and cost of transporting goods.
It is important to note that the meeting was also attended by representatives of the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, European Investment Bank, Islamic Development Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, International Financial Development Corporation (USA), who confirmed their interest in the joint implementation of this project. The meeting resulted in the adoption of a joint action plan on the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad project, and it was noted the importance of implementing the project on the principle of public-private partnership.
Meanwhile, the Taliban coming to power in Afghanistan has not weakened Uzbekistan’s aspiration to develop cooperation with Afghanistan. The President of Uzbekistan has paid again a particular attention to the Afghan problem and urged to prevent isolation of Afghanistan in his statements at the anniversary of SCO summit, SCO-CSTO meeting, 76th session of UN General Assembly in September this year. Uzbekistan, notwithstanding the complicated situation, has not ceased the work of the Uzbek-Afghan transport hub, the most important artery of food and oil products supply to that country, as well as the uninterrupted supply of the electricity to the neighboring country.
At the same time, the contacts between Uzbekistan and the new authorities of Afghanistan were intensified with a view to establishing bilateral economic cooperation. The Uzbek delegation headed by Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov and members of the interim government of Afghanistan held talks in Kabul on October 7.
A delegation from Uzbekistan and Afghanistan held talks at the level of deputy prime ministers with participation of the representatives of various ministries and agencies in Termez on 16 October. These meetings were focused on border security, cooperation in the areas of investment, mutual trade, energy, international freight and transit.
The sides paid a special attention to the implementation of infrastructure projects, in particular the trans-afghan railroad «Termez – Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar». The Afghan side expressed its willingness to ensure the safety of Uzbek specialists involved in this project.
According to experts, this railway is a strategically important project and will connect the regions of Central and South Asia, as well as the Middle East. It will open for Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries the possibility of access to Pakistani ports in the Indian Ocean and will significantly increase the transit potential of Central Asia.
According to preliminary estimates, the length of the railroad will be about 600 km. The project implementation time may take up to 5 years and the amount of credit resources – $4.8 billion. The route will significantly reduce the time and cost of transporting goods between South Asian and European countries through Central Asia, as well as increase the volume of transit traffic through Uzbekistan. If the project is fully implemented, the transportation of goods from Pakistan to Uzbekistan could take 3-5 days instead of 35 days, and the cost of a 20-pound container could be cut by almost three times. According to forecasts, the volume of freight traffic could be up to 10 million tons.
The project will also help to develop the Afghanistan’s transportation network, which remains in poor condition. The length of Afghanistan’s railroads is about 100 km and runs in the border areas with Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran. The road network also requires further expansion and substantial investment.
In this regard, Uzbekistan’s proposals aimed at developing Afghanistan’s transport infrastructure, including the construction of the trans-afghan railway route “Mazar-i-Sharif – Kabul – Peshawar” has been supported by the new authorities of the country and could be implemented.
In addition, this project is also beneficial for other countries of the region and the entire Eurasian continent, since the developed transport transportation along the vector “East-West” can be complemented by the formation of a connected transport and logistics network in the direction of “North-South” with the shortest access to the markets of South, South-East and West Asia. The development of trans-afghan transit can contribute to the implementation on a mutually beneficial basis of a number of major interconnection initiatives, including Russia’s «Great Eurasian Partnership», the Chinese “One Belt, One Road” projects and the EU strategy to connect Europe with Asia.
It is important to note that the creation of the Trans-Afghan transport corridor is an integral infrastructural part of the comprehensive program for the development of connectivity and cooperation between Central and South Asian countries presented in the speech of the President of Uzbekistan at the Tashkent conference.
Tashkent’s initiatives envisage the development of interaction between the two regions on a wide range of issues, including the formation of favorable conditions for the development of trade and economic relations and the growth of mutual investment, the introduction of digital platforms, the joint search for ways to ensure food security, the promotion of «green» development, enhancing of tourist potential of the two regions and cultural and humanitarian cooperation.
The overall intensification of trade and economic cooperation and the development of sustainable commercial ties between the two regions, including a progressive increase in trade and transit traffic through Afghanistan using the existing transport and logistics infrastructure, will be important for the implementation of the railroad project. In this regard, it is necessary to continue work on the formation of a contractual and legal framework for bilateral and multilateral trade relations between Central and South Asian countries, as well as the adoption of comprehensive trade facilitation measures to ensure faster movement of goods and border crossing.
All this would stimulate the growth of freight traffic between the two regions and the demand for transit of goods through Afghanistan, which is necessary to attract the interest of investors to participate in the implementation of this major infrastructure project.
In the context of the developing situation in Afghanistan, the resumption of work on the design of the Trans-Afghan transport corridor is politically important. In fact, by continuing to work on the design and construction of the new railroad, Uzbekistan and other project participants, including the new Afghan authorities, demonstrate their desire for positive interaction aimed at achieving long-term goals and objectives of improving the socio-economic situation, stabilizing and developing of the Afghanistan, its involvement in sustainable regional trade, economic and political-diplomatic relations.
The contacts with representatives of Afghanistan’s interim government related to the railroad project are allow to strengthen mutual understanding, creating conditions for broader interaction of Uzbekistan and other countries with the new regime in Kabul, assisting in national reconciliation in Afghanistan, stabilizing the situation in the country and the region. Solution of these tasks, in turn, is necessary to form a favorable environment for the financing and implementation of this mega-project.
In general, the construction of the trans-afghan railroad is the most important infrastructure project, which meets the interests of all states of the Eurasian continent and can have a tremendous positive impact on the development of Central Asian countries, trade and economic relations of Asian countries and their interregional interconnectedness, will contribute to building mechanisms for long-term cooperation between states. At the same time, Afghanistan will not be an obstacle, but a bridge for strengthening mutually beneficial cooperation between Central and South Asia as well as other countries and regions.