A geopolitical feature of Central Asian countries which is a chronic problem for them at the same time is their being "landlocked". This has incurred doubled or even tripled transit costs on these countries compared to their counterparts (with direct access to open seas). Against this backdrop, finding a way out of this situation and lowering the associated costs has been a key priority for these countries. In this context, Afghanistan-based initiatives focusing on the United States' grand strategy of connecting Central and South Asia, especially during the tenure of Shaukat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan, are on the agenda.
Trans-Afghan Rail Corridor
The corridor was first raised at a meeting in Brussels by Esmatullah Irgashov, Special Representative of the President of Uzbekistan for Afghanistan and welcomed by both Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. The corridor runs from the Uzbek city of Tirmuz to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, and then passes through Kabul to Peshawar in northern Pakistan. The final plan of this railway corridor seeks to give Central Asian countries access to the three ports of Gwadar, Karachi and Qasim in Pakistan. By initial estimates, this railway will be 573 km long with approximate construction costs of 4.8 billion USD. The project is estimated to need approximately 5 years to complete while the nominal transfer capacity of transit cargo in the first phase is estimated at 10 million tons per year.
In February 2021, at a tripartite meeting attended by officials from Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan in Tashkent, the initial plan for the transit corridor was agreed upon. The plan foresees issues such as ownership of locomotives and rail equipment, logistics and maintenance gears, repairs, tariff policies and return on investment mechanisms. Meanwhile, a joint working group consisting of railway officials from the three countries has been set up, and permanent offices for the project are under construction in these countries. On April 14 this year, the first bilateral meeting of the leaders of Pakistan and Uzbekistan was held with the focus on this project, during which the key points of this project were discussed. Less than a month earlier, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov had visited Pakistan.
Trans-Afghanistan as an alternative to Iran
This transit corridor has been vigorously pursued by the Uzbek government in cooperation with Pakistan in recent months. In the last two years, Tashkent officials have held more intensive and, of course, more operational consultations in cooperation with Tehran to use Iranian routes. The final stage of these talks was held during the visit of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to Uzbekistan in April 2021 with transit cooperation a key focus of Zarif’s consultations in Uzbekistan. Also last year, the Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan road corridor was opened for the first time with several trucks taking the route. The two countries have also exercised great efforts to activate the Ashgabat Transit Agreement (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Oman). Uzbekistan is also a member of the North-South International Corridor. Currently, Uzbekistan enjoys the shortest access route to the warm southern waters in less than 10 days via Bandar Abbas port in southern Iran.
However, the crucial point is the competition between the Afghan Trans-Afghan Rail Corridor and the possible Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan Rail Corridor. Last year, Iran’s president officially inaugurated the Khaf-Herat railway project. Officials in Tehran and Tashkent then held intensive talks to connect Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat, and consequently to connect Iran and Uzbekistan (Central Asia) via Afghanistan. In the last stage of these negotiations, during the trilateral meeting of Iran, Uzbekistan and India in the strategic port of Chabahar in December last year, agreements were reached on this railway corridor with negotiations still ongoing. As can the map 1 displays, the Trans-Afghan Rail Corridor (Tirmaz-Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar) is a serious competitor to its peer Iranian corridor (Tirmidh-Mazar-e-Sharif-Herat-Khaf).
Map 1: Comparison of two railway routes from Mazar-e-Sharif to Peshawar and Khaf
Currently, the Afghan Trans-Railway project is in the early stages of estimation, and not even a possible route map has been conceived for the route to Iran. However, the following assumptions can be formed as part of the vision of these paths:
1. The United States has provided special support and guidance for the completion of Afghanistan's rail network by 2030, which envisages the Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Jalalabad route, and finally the connection to Pakistan, as well as the Mazar-e-Sharif route to Herat. Ideally, both routes are favored by the US and the Afghan central government. However, the Pakistan route could be said to have a higher priority.
Map 2: Afghanistan Rail Network Vision 2030
2. This corridor is not just a route between Uzbekistan and Pakistan. Uzbek officials speak of Kazakhstan's interest in participating in the project, which is considered a railway project for the entire Central Asia. Negotiations between Uzbek and Pakistani authorities on the Mazar-e-Sharif-Herat-Kandahar-Quetta railway project also appear to have taken place.
3. Uzbekistan has doubled down its efforts in connection with Afghanistan in recent years, focusing on the peace process. It now appears that with the gradual drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan, the conditions have been ripe for Pakistan to boost its sway in the country, and this, along with close talks between the two countries and the Taliban, will pave the way for security cooperation as a complement to the project.
4. An important part of the route envisaged for the Afghan Trans-Rail Corridor passes through Taliban-controlled areas. Therefore, the completion of this project requires close cooperation between the two countries and the Taliban alongside the central government of Afghanistan. This could affect the peace process, and in particular the de-escalation of tensions following the US withdrawal from the region. Currently, the poor security situation in the southern regions of Afghanistan and the roads leading to this corridor has made its achievement really punishing.
5. A critical setback of this project is its outrageously high costs compared to the Herat route. While the Herat route is a relatively flat plain, the Mazar-e-Sharaf route to Kabul and then Peshawar is characterized by a mountainous terrain. The construction of the railway line means the construction of a significant number of bridges and tunnels, the length and number of which, according to Uzbek experts, are yet to be figured out. As a result, the operating cost of this project, despite its shorter length, is higher and requires much more time. Uzbek experts have also raised questions about the lack of adequate logistics infrastructure from Peshawar to Gwadar.
Map 3: Topology of Afghanistan between Mazar-e-Sharif, Peshawar and Herat
6. Another significant issue is the financing of the Trans-Afghan project. At a recent meeting of officials of the two countries, financing through a multilateral mechanism of international financial institutions and institutions including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Islamic Development Bank, European Investment Bank, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and US International Development Finance Company was subject of discussion. Meanwhile, in the Tashkent and Islamabad agreements, the World Bank is tasked with developing a model for financing and covering the costs of the project with the participation of officials from both countries. However, it should be noted that Uzbekistan is undergoing a rising trend of international debt, and it seems that securing new loans and increasing debt in this area will make life difficult for the country in the coming years. For Pakistan, too, after an implicit withdrawal from the TAPI project financing project, a favorable financing outlook cannot be imagined.
7. Although this corridor is a potent alternative to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in the context of Beijing-Islamabad cooperation, it is possible to design this corridor as an alternative to the North-South India International Corridor Initiatives in Central Asia. Therefore, China's implicit support for the project is also likely if becomes operational.
Summing up and Requirements
Although the Trans-Afghan Railway project is a committed competitor and alternative to Iranian initiatives, there is evidence that the Uzbek government views both projects quite pragmatically. Therefore, the emergence of pragmatism regarding the objective progress of projects can play into accelerating Iranian initiatives. Against this background, the Islamic Republic of Iran should act immediately to kick-start the executive and technical processes for this issue, and in particular to develop a multilateral financing mechanism. Completion of internal parts of Khaf direct rail connection to Chabahar is also crucial. This, if realized, could attract the attention of the Uzbek government. A complement to this could be stepped-up Iran-Uzbekistan security cooperation with the Afghan government in the northern regions leading to the joint borders of Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Islamic Republic of Iran can also provide the Herat-Kandahar-Quetta route as a common platform between Iran, Pakistan and Uzbekistan by defining a cooperative mechanism with Pakistan through activating and reviving alternative projects such as the Peace Pipeline. In this regard, the framework of relations between the three countries can be closer to the dimensions of cooperation in the common interest.