It is only 75 kilometres long, but its impact could be enormous. The rail link that is scheduled to open early next month between Mazar-e-Sharif and Hairatan on the Uzbek border marks a significant milestone in Afghanistan’s journey toward peace, progress and prosperity.
Without a doubt, Afghanistan faces some daunting challenges. Scarred by decades of insurgency, the country must build a sustainable economy while grappling with weak governance, rampant gender inequality, few jobs and endemic poverty.
Afghanistan today is, in many ways, a place in-between.
Geographically, it sits at the crossroads of vast markets to the west, east and south, representing billions of dollars worth of trade. Historically, it stands on fragile ground between a violent past and a future of opportunity. Its rich mineral and hydrocarbon deposits and strategic location at the heart of the ancient Silk Road hold the promise of a better life for the Afghan people and increased stability for the entire Central Asian region.
Such a future is critical for global stability and widely shared prosperity. But this will not be achieved without significant investment to turn this landlocked and isolated economy into one that is land-linked and integrated with its neighbours. For a sustainable future, Afghanistan needs to build a modern infrastructure, sound basic services, good governance and efficient institutions in order to expand trade within the region and beyond.
Transport infrastructure and energy supply are the backbone and lifeblood of any economy. For Central Asia, transit through Afghanistan is a vital lifeline to critical global markets. For the world at large, an integrated Central Asia represents both increased stability and a more vibrant, diverse and economically interesting investment proposition.
The new rail link connects Afghanistan to Uzbekistan’s expansive rail network and to regional markets in Europe and Asia — boosting regional trade and facilitating the flow of humanitarian assistance. Future links are planned to connect to other parts of the region, including Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
What’s more, the rail line is part of a more extensive transport plan in progress across the region. The Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) programme — which this week will hold its 10thministerial meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan — has laid the groundwork for this effort.
This partnership consisting of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, promotes economic development through cooperation among member countries.
The reconstruction of Afghanistan’s ring road network has already eased access to southern markets. Many other transport projects are under way or have been completed to improve the region’s road, rail, air and sea connections. The US Silk Road Initiative proposal and the forthcoming Bonn Conference on Afghanistan confirm the desire of the international community and Afghanistan’s neighbours to cooperate in supporting the country’s ongoing development through greater regional cooperation. With a proven 10-year track record of delivering mutually beneficial regional projects, the CAREC programme offers a practical vehicle for doing so.
After decades of chronic dislocation and conflict, Afghanistan is experiencing a transformation that is redefining its role in the region and the world. Beyond its strictly practical purpose, the new rail line is symbolic of a vision for a better life for the Afghan people. By remaining engaged and fully committed to the country’s development, the international community can help transform Afghanistan from ‘the place in-between’ to a vibrant crossroads of culture and commerce.