Earlier in March 2013, the three leaders signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the construction of the joint Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway project. The first phase of the railway line, Atamyrat-Imamnazar in Turkmenistan to Andhoi-Akina in Afghanistan, was initially a standalone project. From Andhoi-Akina the railroad is planned to extend further to Mazar-e-Sharif and then to Khulm, also in Afghanistan.
Tajikistan joined the project later. The construction of the railway line from Khulm, Afghanistan to the Tajik border is still under discussion, with at least four different schemes on the table. Officially, Afghanistan wants to extend the railroad line to the city of Kunduz in the north of the country and then continue it to the Afghan-Tajik border. Yet, Tajikistan advocates a direct route from Khulm to the Tajik-Afghan border, which would be 60 kilometers shorter.
There are multiple benefits to the grandiose Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway project. The project is of regional importance. Economically, it will increase investments and the trade turnover among countries in the region. The project will also open bigger markets for domestic products and increase both exports and import levels since it will connect Central Asian countries, via Afghanistan, to South Asian markets, like Pakistan and India. The project will also create many much-needed jobs and significantly improve infrastructure.
The long-term implication is the renewed importance of Afghanistan as a transit country. Greater economic integration may contribute to regional security in this way. At the same time, the lingering doubts regarding the construction and implementation of the Turkmen-Afghan-Tajik railway is the Afghan political situation, the risk of renewed war, drug trafficking and the spread of religious movements. This said, the new railway would end Afghanistan’s transportation isolation.
The project would also diversify the transport routes of landlocked Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Tajikistan would benefit tremendously by overcoming its current transportation deadlock and its dependency on Uzbek railroads for transit. Uzbekistan has been blocking the once common Soviet-era railway and uses this transit dependency as leverage for political pressure on Tajikistan. Relations between the two countries have been strained for an extended period of time. The new railway route will bypass Uzbekistan’s Surhondarya region and connect Tajikistan directly to Turkmenistan. Finally, it will allow Tajikistan to import oil products and other important goods without the obstacles imposed by Uzbekistan.
Ironically, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan’s largest Central Asian trading partner, recently constructed the middle of the railway project, the Afghan segment connecting Hayraton (the Afghan town opposite Termez, Uzbekistan, across the Amu Darya river) to Mazar-i-Sharif and further to Akina. Hayraton-Mazar-i-Sharif was completed in 2011. Uzbekistan announced that it is considering building an extension of the existing line to the new Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan route. This again demonstrates the interconnection between Central Asian countries, despite their poor bilateral relations as in the case of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The new railway project demonstrates awareness on part of these actors that they need each other to fruitfully coexist and develop on a faster pace.
The estimated cost of the planned 400 kilometer railway project is US$ 1.5-2 billion. Gas-rich Turkmenistan is financially secure and is the driving force behind the project. Turkmenistan plans to finance the construction of the segment in its territory independently, though it will seek external funding for other infrastructure. Depending on the availability of funds, Turkmenistan also offered to build a 35 kilometer rail from the Turkmen-Afghan border to the Afghan town of Andhoi. Tajikistan and Afghanistan will in turn have to seek additional funding in order to realize the ambitious project. The obvious funding sources are the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and Japan. But the countries could also request funding from China, which would benefit from the railway’s new access to mining resources in Afghanistan and a shorter route to Central Asian markets.