Afghan Railways: From the Great Game to the Modern Silk Road

NOLAN: If you look at a map of Afghanistan, you might notice the outline of the country is shaped something like a lamb chop. What would be the bone extends to the northeast until it reaches China, where the two countries share a 47 mile border. This narrow strip of land between Tajikistan and Pakistan–140 miles long but sometimes just 10 miles wide–reaches the end of the Himalayan range and is known as the Wakhan corridor. So why is it there?

SPOONER: in the 1870s the reason the British wanted to do this was in order to set up a buffer state between the British empire in south Asia and the Russian empire in central Asia because the Russians had kept moving south through central Asia and of course the British were concerned about their northwestern frontier because its the most vulnerable part of their empire in India.

NOLAN: That was Dr. Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and curator for Near Eastern ethnology at the Penn Museum. But why does this territory extend all the way to China?

SPOONER: So the wakhan corridor was the tail end of that definition of boundaries in order to make absolutely sure the British and Russian empires didn’t share a border.

NOLAN: The whole strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia is known as the Great Game, and Afghanistan was at its center. As a buffer state Afghanistan was completely isolated from the rest of the world and no one interfered in the country’s affairs. So Afghanistan remained independent, but it also remained undeveloped and has continued to feel the repercussions of the Great Game to this day. The deficient transportation infrastructure in Afghanistan is a clear example. Spooner explains how it started.

SPOONER: Well because Afghanistan was never a colonial administration and so there was no colonial administration to build an infrastructure as there was in India and the part of India that has become Pakistan and the part of central Asia that became part of the Russian empire.

NOLAN: Afghans also actively resisted the infrastructure. Amir Abdul Rehman, ruler of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, called a British railway that extended to the border of Afghanistan “a knife pushed to my vitals” and vowed that “there will be a railway in Afghanistan when the Afghans are able to make it themselves.”

GRANTHAM: Again that’s very unusual because most countries are quite keen to have railways but the afghan leadership always feared if they allowed either the Russians from the north or the British from India in the south to build a railway across the border, one way or another it would end up with Afghanistan being annexed either to the Russian or British empires.

NOLAN: That was Andrew Grantham, News Editor of the trade magazine Railway Gazette International. Just this year, Afghanistan’s first railway was completed. It runs from the Uzbekistan border in the north 45 miles down to Mazar-i-Sharif, one of Afghanistan’s main cities. There are a number of plans in the works to expand on this modest start, but many obstacles are in the way. One of them is the question of rail gauges, or the distance between the rails. As a testament to its location as a crossroads of Asia, three different gauges meet at Afghanistan. Iran to the west and China to the east use standard gauge, 4 foot 8 and a half. The former Soviet Union republics to the north use Russian gauge, 5 foot. And Pakistan and India to the south use broad gauge, 5 foot 6.

GRANTHAM: At the moment it’s not really a problem. If it does develop a serious railway network it will become a major problem once the rail networks meet up … and I think really the choice for Afghanistan will have to depend on how people see the freight flows going.

NOLAN: Right now there is no freight flowing, but policy makers are working to change that. The buzz word being thrown around by experts and government officials is the Modern Silk Road Initiative. Half a millennium ago Afghanistan was a major stop along the old Silk Road until the trade route that linked Asia to Africa and the Mediterranean disintegrated. The idea, now, is to reconnect Afghanistan to the rest of the region and use its central location to spur development. Dr. Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, has studied the potential of this strategy.

KUCHINS: So to some extent it’s certainly the promotion the facilitation of the export of afghan products to the rest of the world but just as much so its the vision of these transcontinental long trade routes from Beijing to Berlin, Mumbai to Moscow that would hopefully include Afghanistan and so called greater central Asia as part of it.

NOLAN: The idea is that trade flowing through Afghanistan will generate customs duties, a sustainable source of domestic revenue. The tariff income is already increasing and makes up a significant portion of the government’s revenue. There are a few challenges, however. One is simply a lack of physical infrastructure–not enough railroads and poor road conditions. Security is another one, but it may not be as problematic as it sounds. Kuchins studied the flow of U.S. military supplies traveling without military protection from Pakistan into Afghanistan.

KUCHINS: What surprised me to learn is that … less than one percent of what we’re bringing is being lost. And that actually there’s a lower loss rate than in some counties New Jersey, not to pick on New Jersey but that was one of the figures they have, so it’s likes whoa that’s sort of counter-intuitive.

NOLAN: Attacks on convoys are infrequent because Afghans and Pakistanis have an incentive to facilitate this trade. As long as they benefit from the trucks driving along their roads, they will support the transit trade. Kuchins says the biggest problem is a dearth of what he calls soft infrastructure–institutions and rule of law to coordinate trade between countries. Surveys in the region have found that excessive transit time is spent waiting at customs outposts, something Grantham thinks will discourage the use of Afghanistan as a transit hub.

GRANTHAM: It probably wouldn’t be an ideal route for something like china to Europe because of the number of borders that would have to be crossed.

NOLAN: The more likely alternatives for transcontinental shipping are the trans-Siberian railroad or a railroad across Kazakhstan that is currently under development. Afghanistan could, however, provide a route to the sea for the former Soviet Union republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan without going through Russia. Also, the Chinese need to find a way to transport ore from their copper mine in Afghanistan back to China. There is some dispute whether this will involve a railroad line.

GRANTHAM: The Afghans seem to think the Chinese have committed to building it. The Chinese believe they’re committed to studying it rather than actual going ahead and building it.

NOLAN: Like most of Afghanistan’s future, the fate of this railway remains unclear. Whether the Silk Road Initiative succeeds or fails, Afghanistan is reconnecting to its neighbors as regional players vie for influence in the country. The competition between China, Iran, Pakistan, and India in Central Asia has been termed the New Great Game and Afghanistan could emerge in a better position than the last time around.

For War News Radio, I’m Jared Nolan.

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