A railroad through Afghanistan? The first signs.

Bloomberg’s report on plans to build a railway from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-e Sharif is real news because the improved transport facilities will cheapen and speed up the movement of goods into Afghanistan. Could this be the beginning of a new railroad through Afghanistan? It has been a concept ever since the nineteenth century.

Afghan Railway to Draw Taliban Fire as It Boosts Economy, NATO Bloomberg By Eltaf Najafizada and James Rupert May 5, 2010 Workers are laying track across north Afghanistan~Rs rolling grassland for the country~Rs first rail line, a project that will boost the economy, supply NATO troops and become a target for Taliban bombs.

The railway, being built by Uzbekistan’s state railroad, will run 75 kilometers (45 miles) from the Uzbek border to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, said Craig Steffensen, Kabul-based Afghanistan country director for the Asian Development Bank, who has inspected the work.

The line, to be completed this year, will more than double shipments of fuels, food grains, consumer goods and construction materials through a border crossing that handles half of the country~Rs imports, the bank says.

“Railroads can reduce our isolation,” said Hamidullah Farooqi, a Kabul University economics professor and former transport minister, in a phone interview. “This is just the first line for a network that we hope can turn our country into a new trade route. That is what we need to create stability.”

More than a century after Afghan monarch Amir Abdurrahman banned rail lines as potential invasion routes, physical isolation and war have left Afghanistan the second-least developed of 182 countries measured by the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

The line not only will help develop the north, which holds most of the country’s known gas, oil and coal, it is the first step in linking Central Asia to seaports in Iran, Steffensen said.

Needing Pakistan

The link to Uzbekistan and onward to Kazakhstan and Russia also will reduce the dependence of Afghanistan and of U.S.-led NATO forces on Pakistan, where local Taliban have hijacked or burned trucks carrying U.S. military supplies.

The railway will connect to a new U.S. supply network from the north and so “will be particularly helpful in bringing goods into the country for our needs,” said U.S. Colonel Wayne Shanks, a spokesman in Kabul for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization~Rs International Security Assistance Force.

Thus the Taliban plan to strike, said movement spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, in a mobile-phone interview. “If NATO uses this railroad to import their supplies we will attack them 100 percent, and we’ll block the railroad,” he said.

That may be difficult. The rail line passes west of the Pashtun districts in the north that the Taliban, a movement of ethnic Pashtuns, recently have taken over.

Ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks who live nearer the line are “not sympathetic,” to the Taliban, said Zabi Wahab, a native of the region who is the business development manager at the Dubai- based Kefayat Group.

First Step

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank is paying $165 million, 97 percent of the line’s cost, because “this is the first step of a development that will benefit the whole region” of Central Asia, Steffensen said in a telephone interview. The Afghan government is paying another $5 million.

More rail construction may follow. A separate line partly built by Iran into Afghanistan’s northwest, plus two projects being studied by China and the development bank, could give north Afghanistan the shortest rail link yet from Central Asia to Iranian seaports, and the first standard-gauge line from the Pacific Ocean to Europe, said Steffensen and Farooqi.

A standard-gauge route would eliminate the need for trans-Asian trains to stop at the Chinese-Kazakh border and in Eastern Europe to change their wheel assemblies to fit the broader ex-Soviet rail gauge.

Beijing-based Metallurgical Corp. of China Ltd. agreed to help build a railway to export ore in 2007 when it won the license for Afghanistan~Rs biggest copper mine. Afghan and Chinese officials have discussed a route north through Tajikistan to western China, Farooqi said.

Oil and Gas

Reports show Afghanistan has more than 150 million barrels of oil reserves and more than 4.5 trillion cubic feet of gas, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

The first Afghan rail line may turn Mazar-e-Sharif, a city of more than 300,000 people, into an Afghan transport hub, promoting business development in the north that “is crucial to Afghanistan~Rs economic development and stabilization,” said Anne Benjaminson, an economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Companies suffer as much as a month’s delay in getting rail shipments transferred to trucks at the northern Afghan border town of Hairaton. Uzbekistan “often closes the border for two weeks at a time, saying it is because of congestion at Hairaton,” said Wahab in a phone interview.

Trade at Hairaton is expected this year to reach 40,000 tons a month, Steffensen said. The greater efficiency of the railroad may boost demand for haulage across the border to 5,000 tons per day, according to the development bank.

Rail Bed

In northwest Afghanistan, Iran has built two-thirds of a 190-kilometer rail bed from the Iranian town of Khaf to the northwestern Afghan city of Herat. The Afghan government is seeking funds to build the rest, deputy public works minister Ahmad Shah Waheed said.

The development bank is funding technical surveys for a line of more than 700 kilometers (430 miles) to connect the two Afghan spurs under construction. That would offer the five, landlocked Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which have a combined Malaysia-sized GDP of $187 billion– their most direct trade route to Iran~Rs Gulf or Indian Ocean ports.

To contact the reporters on this story: Eltaf Najafizada in Kabul in Kabul at enajafizada1@bloomberg.net; James Rupert in New Delhi at jrupert3@bloomberg.net.