A joint railway project between Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan is gaining momentum as it could open up international trade routes, but some caution against collaborating with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan considering ongoing human rights abuses and the introduction of Sharia law.
Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed the rail project in February 2021, prior to the Taliban takeover, to connect the former Soviet Central Asian republics with South Asia via Kabul.
The project is significant for Uzbekistan as better communication with South Asia and the huge Pakistani and Indian markets would help the former Soviet republic distance itself from Russia’s grip.
“In the light of the current developments in Ukraine, a Transcaspian road to South Asia is in high demand,” Vice Chair of Uzbek Railways, Akmal Kamalov, said during a briefing in Brussels on 3 November.
According to the latest calculations, the new proposed railway would be 573 km long, cost $5.96 billion and boost Afghanistan’s transit to the extent that the railway has been branded “project of the century ” by Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The line will run from Termez in Uzbekistan to Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, then onto Peshawar in Pakistan.
“For political and economic reforms to be successful in Uzbekistan, there needs to be peace in the region, hence the importance of Afghanistan in Uzbek foreign policy and the fact that Uzbekistan has been trying to direct the attention of the international community to the situation in this country,” Uzbekistan’s special representative for Afghanistan, Ambassador Ismatulla Irgashev, said during the briefing.
The project is even more critical for Afghanistan itself, Uzbek Railways’ Kamalov pointed out.
“Without massive projects of this scale and magnitude, rebuilding Afghanistan will not be possible given the full degradation of the Afghan economy”, he said, in reference to what Irgashev called “the complex and deteriorating” humanitarian situation that followed the Western withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021.
According to Kamalov, the new railway project will help the local population by creating 5 million jobs and benefit approximately 15 million people along the route.
”Afghanistan has a huge potential in terms of natural deposits, especially in the north of the country,” the ambassador said.
Uzbek diplomacy and human rights concerns
According to Irgashev, Tashkent was able to successfully push for the Termez – Peshawar railway project thanks to the consistent efforts of Uzbek diplomacy over the last 20 years, which was called “positive neutrality”.
According to him, dialogue with the Taliban is necessary to help the Afghan people effectively and to favour the voice of the most moderate among them.
“There are several movements and sensibilities within the Taliban, and the Uzbek government managed to gather several moderates that are willing to cooperate with the international community”, Irgashev said.
Afghanistan currently ranks among the lowest in the world for human rights of minorities, women and children. Irgashev emphasised that the situation underlines the necessity of Uzbekistan’s “critical and pragmatic” dialogue with the country’s leaders.
But in spite of the Taliban’s promises to rule more moderately when it took power in 2021, the religious group has enforced a strict application of the Sharia law.
On Tuesday (15 November), Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada ordered Afghan judges to impose punishments that may include public amputations and stoning, following on from a ban on women attending parks and gyms in Kabul, issued the Thursday prior.
According to Amnesty International, women and girls have been barred from exercising their most basic rights, including the rights to freedom of movement, political participation, and education as girls’ secondary schools remain closed and “idle” girls are married off.
This is leading to concerns about the legitimisation of the regime.
“It seems incredible in 2022 to be having a conversation about whether girls should be allowed to study,” said Sahar Fetrat, research assistant with the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.
“The world should do more to stop this shocking abuse. Every day, millions of Afghan girls face lost opportunities and shattered dreams, perhaps forever.”
The railway project currently reached the feasibility study level and the three countries involved are negotiating the creation of a consortium to finance it.
For Pierre Borgoltz, member of the advisory council at FERRMED Study, the trans-Afghanistan railway is a “very encouraging sign for the region” with finances that remain, however, “undetermined”.
“It will be, in the end, a matter of prioritisation since public money is becoming scarce in the current context and private investment in such risky ventures is not guaranteed,” he told EURACTIV.
On the Uzbek side, Kamalov told EURACTIV that talks with Chinese funders are underway. “We had originally planned to build a bank consortium financed by the World Bank to support this project, but it was scrapped after the Taliban took power,” he said.
EU not convinced
Contacted by EURACTIV, the European External Action Service (EEAS) spokesperson confirmed that, while the EU continues its investment and infrastructure plans to connect Central Asia with South Asia, it “cannot include Afghanistan in these plans.”
“Our non-recognition of the Taliban regime has led to the freezing of EU development cooperation,” the spokesperson explained, adding that “this operational engagement will increase depending on the behaviour of this government.”
Uzbek officials insisted, however, that the role of the Taliban in facilitating the development of the 25-year-old project has been significant.
“This railway project is not new and we had talks with the former US-backed Afghan but it never got the impulse it has now under the Taliban,” Irgashev said.