Rail route upsets remote Afghan province
By RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
KABUL - Residents of a remote northeastern Afghan region are adamant that they won't let go of the chance of their province becoming an economic hub linked to the country's Central Asian neighbors. For the past week dozens of officials and tribal leaders of the northeastern Konduz province have been in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
They have one plea for the central government: not to modify the planned route of a long-awaited railroad meant to link northern Afghan provinces with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Construction on the railway was inaugurated in June by the presidents of
Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
At the time, the 400-kilometer Afghan portion of the route envisioned the railroad heading east through the city of Mazar-e Sharif toward Konduz Province. There, it would bend gently northeast, joining Tajikistan via the Afghan river port of Shir Khan Bandar.
But a new, shorter route, given tentative approval in July by the Afghan Ministry of Public Works, would bypass Konduz by linking the neighboring Afghan province of Balkh to Tajikistan at a point further west along the two countries' common border.
The proposed railway with the new route marked in broken lines.
Konduz governor Muhammad Anwar Jagdalak told RFE/RL that the bypass will undermine the status of his province's Amu Darya River port, Shir Khan Bandar, as a hub for linking Tajikistan and Afghanistan and, beyond that, China and South Asia.
"This new proposed link will prove disastrous for Shir Khan Bandar," he said. "We are petitioning our president to plead that the move violates the principle of balanced regional development [across the country]."
Konduz's demands are backed by officials and notables from the neighboring northeastern Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Takhar, and Baghlan.
'A temporary solution'
Senior Afghan officials in Kabul, however, say the government is not planning to fundamentally alter the proposed project. Minister of Public Works Najibullah Ojan maintains that the cost and time needed for completing the momentous project have forced authorities to consider building a temporary rail link along the shorter route. He told RFE/RL that this temporary link will be dismantled once the longer section via Konduz is completed in around four years' time.
"Overall, the government's policy and plans have not changed," he said. "Our ultimate aim is to link with Tajikistan through Shir Khan Bandar. But in the meanwhile we want to generate some revenues and link with Tajikistan through a shorter railroad [from Balkh Province]. You need to understand that this proposed new link is only 50 or 60 kilometers long and the permanent railroad is longer than 300 kilometers."
That view is supported in Tajikistan. Juma Khan Zuhurov, the first deputy minister for transportation, says that a direct link between Balkh and the Tajik rail network will cut the distance by hundreds of kilometers. But he told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that Kabul has the power to pursue one of any number of options.
"It is their soil and ultimately they can decide what they want to do," he said.
The entire railway is meant first to connect Atamyrat with Ymamnazar in Turkmenistan, before heading east to Akina-Andkhoy in the northern Afghan province of Faryab and onward to Mazar-e Sharif. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has indicated its willingness to fund the Afghan portion of the track, with construction set to begin this summer.
The project is considered a revolutionary leap for Afghanistan, which has seen little railway development since a seven-kilometer track was built in the 1920s and later dismantled.
The ADB has already provided US$160 million for a 75-kilometer railway line connecting the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif to Uzbekistan. That project was completed in 2011.
Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan with additional reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service.