Several central Asian nations have proposed the construction of an Uzbekistan-Pakistan rail line that will cross through Afghanistan. Could trade bring stability to the region?
There is a growing appetite among landlocked central Asian nations to open trade routes through south Asia to provide them greater access to the world. The concept is a no brainer. Building highways and train networks through to the subcontinent will afford developing central Asian countries with the opportunity to better access global trade, both to support their domestic manufacturing economy through exports, as well as improving the quality of life of its citizens by accessing cheap imports. These networks will also develop new industries in the region such as bolstering the energy economy, creating new jobs for local citizens.
Former prime minister of Kyrgyzstan Djoomart Otorbaev writing for Project Syndicate revealed that this has been a keenly pursued policy by several nations. Indeed, Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan to grow backing for these transnational transport networks. Otorbaev further argued that these trade routes would interest China, Russia and India as it would build peace in the region.
However, this isn’t a simple project as Afghanistan is situated in the middle of the proposed trade route. The Foreign Minister's “Kabul Corridor” would be achieved by building a rail link between the Uzbek city of Termez through to Peshawar in Pakistan, passing through Kabul.
Though, the central Asian nations seem somewhat unfazed by the proposition of building transport networks through Afghanistan. This was evidenced when Otorbaev argued that the network would provide economic prosperity through the region, thus increasing regional stability to Afghanistan.
"Once completed, these projects would transform Eurasian security, significantly increase regional economic activity, and potentially bring peace at last to Afghanistan," he wrote of the network.
Namely, the project will provide a cheaper method of moving goods throughout the region. “Economists calculate that transporting a container from Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, to Karachi would cost approximately $1,400-1,600, about half the price of transporting it from Tashkent to Bandar Abbas ($2,600-3,000). Besides, international economic sanctions against Iran will complicate any projects there,” Otorbaev noted.
Addressing the potential security concerns surrounding the project, Otorbaev pointed to recent Turkmenistan and Taliban dialogue over a recent gas pipeline passing through the country, where the Taliban expressed their support to the project.
While the Corridor would support the economic growth and development of the central Asian nations, Taliban support for the project is simply not enough to be able to ensure the safety of construction workers or the goods on the rail line. Indeed, it is likely that any rail linking Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan would also have to make a final journey through Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Thus, there are a lot of tribal, national, military and economic stakeholders that would need to ratify the construction and ongoing peace of the rail project.
Regarding this requirement to appease a multitude of political factions, it is a useful insight to look back to Dr Nishank Motwani’s description of a “total spoiler” in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.
In Afghanistan, “there is a persistence of political spoilers. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord and head of the Hezb-i Islami political faction, fits the definition of a 'total spoiler' – one who pursues total power and whose objectives are not subject to change”, Motwani noted.
“Between 1992 and 1995, Hekmatyar ordered the shelling of Kabul, which killed thousands of civilians. This act earned him the nickname the 'Butcher of Kabul' and demonstrated that he would seize by force what he could not gain through negotiations,” he added.
While the central Asian dream of an Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan rail line would support the economic growth of the region, simply too many stakeholders would need to ratify such construction. From Pakistan’s former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, through to the Taliban as well as several national governments. Even after the construction of the rail line, no one group can guarantee or ensure the safety of any goods, passengers or energy passing through.
Otorbaev must note that many people are not motivated by economic incentives. In a region demarcated by religion, religious zealousness, ethnicity, political motivators and ancient feuds, economic incentives can only address a small portion of these economic drivers.