In an era of increasing global connectivity and trade, resource-rich landlocked nations are shifting their gaze beyond their borders. Central Asian countries, abundant in natural resources such as oil and gas, seek connections with non-traditional trade partners across regions like South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North America. This surge in regional connectivity and interdependence plays a pivotal role in advancing trade and the global economy within the framework of globalization.
The Trans Afghan Railway project targets completion by 2027, aiming to transport 15 million tons of cargo by 2030.
Uzbekistan leads this collaborative initiative with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The estimated railway spans 573 kilometers and costs $5.96 billion. In today’s era of connectivity, landlocked Uzbekistan seeks diverse markets and views Pakistan, with its warm-water ports, as an ideal trade partner. The proposed route connects Termez in Uzbekistan, Mazar-i-Sharif and Logar in Afghanistan. It ultimately reaches Pakistan through the Kharlachi border crossing in Kurram, providing access to the Arabian Sea.
The idea of geo-economics is gaining traction, with a growing enthusiasm among Central Asian states to leverage direct connections to the warm-water seaports of Pakistan. Furthermore, the proliferation of CPEC has paved the way for extensive multilateral development, emphasizing the importance of leaving no stone unturned in regional integration. Establishing multiple rail links is imperative to unlock the productivity potential of the region’s abundant human resources.
Pakistan, situated advantageously along the CPEC route, can tap into the abundant resources of Central Asian states and Afghanistan.
China’s recent appointment of an ambassador to Afghanistan has been seen as noteworthy, signaling China’s growing engagement with Afghanistan. Chinese Foreign Minister’s statement underscores China’s broader interests and cooperation intentions within Afghanistan. China’s expressed interest in financing the Trans-Afghan Railway Project indicates its commitment to expanding connectivity with Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and the wider region. Establishing a reliable railway corridor aligns with China’s goals by improving the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of transit goods transport. Nonetheless, this project faces numerous challenges and uncertainties that could influence how Chinese policymakers allocate their resources.
Aside from the economic perks, a larger foothold and increased prominence in Pakistan open up strategic possibilities in the Indian Ocean arena. Once CPEC projects are finalized, they would grant Beijing direct overland access to the Indian Ocean, a growing battleground in the Indo-Pacific theater. Gaining more control over trade routes, evolving geopolitical shifts, and security dynamics could increase opportunities to wield power and bolster naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan is already under projects like TAPI, CASA-1000, Quadrilateral Traffic and Transit Agreement (QTTA), and Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline (PSGP), a flagship project of a Pak-Russia strategic partnership involving the construction of an 1122 KM high-pressure gas transmission pipeline. This project signifies the importance and interest of Pakistan to look around for new trade partners and smooth transition of markets. Energy resources from CARs and food and textile product from Pakistan is going to build new trust within the brotherly nation with the declining food security threats of Afganistan.
Strengthening diplomatic ties with Central Asian Republics (CARs) and Afghanistan through this project elevates Pakistan’s regional stature, emphasizing its commitment to peace, cooperation, and economic interdependence. Pakistan’s strategic location and access to warm-water ports in Gwadar, Karachi, and Qasim make it a vital trade and connectivity hub. Improved infrastructure and the ML-1 project will enhance Pakistan’s railway capacity, while reduced product costs and streamlined tariffs promise economic benefits for partner states, potentially lowering costs by up to 40%.
Pakistan should focus on maximizing gains from transit opportunities. This project will link Pakistan to Uzbekistan, Russia, and the Caspian region, providing a gateway to Europe.
To fully leverage this, Pakistan needs improved relations with neighboring countries like India and Iran, unlocking substantial markets and resources. With CPEC progressing, strategic geopolitical balancing can enhance Afghanistan’s access to global markets and political influence, which the Taliban keenly observes.
Pakistan and Uzbekistan should focus on smooth feasibility and work on the Railway line in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, already a war-torn area, is now looking toward development, finance, and peace. In a piece published on the Hasht-e Subh Daily news website, Afghan rail expert Nazir Ahmad Rasa explained, “Given the occurrence of many operations conducted by ISIS in Kabul and Herat provinces, together with their explicit threats targeting this project, it is plausible to assert that this situation may provide a significant obstacle to its advancement.”
This project is poised to elevate the SCO’s international standing on the global stage by catalyzing heightened trade between member countries from Central Asia (CARs) to South Asia, ultimately extending into the Indian Ocean region. This surge in economic collaboration among SCO members promises to be a harbinger of development, facilitating seamless transit for goods and fostering enhanced cooperation.
The United States and Europe are championing India as a robust rival to China in the region, and recent events have amplified this position.
At the G-20 Summit in Delhi, the inking of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for creating the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is seen as a direct response to China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It’s worth noting that China’s BRI already spans a vast network across 150+ nations, with substantial investments. Furthermore, as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, China strategically positions itself to assume a pivotal role in the country’s development and extend its influence into resource-rich Central Asia.
The complete implementation of the Trans-Afghan Railway project has the potential to revolutionize the region by facilitating the creation of essential trade routes connecting Eurasia, which would bring significant advantages to numerous developing nations. However, successfully carrying out this project requires an unyielding dedication from all parties involved despite the substantial economic and political challenges they may encounter.
The alliances forged through the Trans-Afghan Railway will prove more resilient than any political accord or geopolitical arrangement. Consequently, by endorsing the idea of Afghanistan as a link connecting Central Asia and South Asia, stakeholders are addressing socio-economic and transportation challenges and playing a substantial role in enhancing regional security and stability in these areas.
The Trans Afghan Railway project is a vital endeavor with benefits extending to all participating nations. Uzbekistan will gain global connectivity, while Afghanistan will profit from development, employment, financial resources, and access to valuable assets. Pakistan, in turn, will secure energy resources, minerals, development opportunities, and connections to the East and global networks. Collaborative efforts among the involved nations are imperative for this project to gain unanimous support and ensure seamless advancement and progress. Pakistan should extract maximum advantages from such transit initiatives and pivot its focus towards the East instead of remaining exclusively aligned with Western interests.
The author works at different national and international platforms as a volunteer and currently serves as Vice President of the Department Student Society studying at the University of Sargodha, Pakistan.