At the Naibabad freight terminal near the northern Afghan town of Mazar-e-Sharif, workers rush to unload wheat and construction materials from Uzbekistan that have arrived on Afghanistan’s only railroad. Trucks will have to carry the cargo through the icy Hindu Kush mountains to the rest of the country because Afghanistan, which encompasses almost 252,000 square miles, has only 47 miles of train track.
The government has grand plans to change that by constructing a 2,237-mile national rail line to transport not just food and other goods but something more vital to the struggling nation’s economy: its vast natural resources, including iron, copper, and gold.
In 2010 the Pentagon estimated Afghanistan is sitting on mineral deposits worth about $1 trillion. In 2011 the Afghan government put the value at $3 trillion. This potential wealth has remained largely untapped, because there’s no way to safely and reliably ship the minerals from the country’s mines.
Afghanistan’s 25-year economic plan calls for connecting the country to established rail lines that run through Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. “Railways are absolutely vital” for carrying landlocked Afghanistan’s minerals to neighboring countries with seaports, says Joji Tokeshi, country director in Kabul for the Asian Development Bank.
It provided a $165 million grant that covered most of the cost of building the short railway from Uzbekistan’s border to Mazar-e-Sharif in 2011. Yet constructing a national railway has proved far more difficult than the Afghan government and its international advisers imagined.
One of the most vexing problems has been finding a way to protect trains, tracks, and trestles from attack by the Taliban and other militants, an effort that will become more urgent after Afghan forces take over from the U.S. later this year. “There are a lot of challenges they need to overcome, both in terms of security in building it and in maintaining the rail line,” says U.S. Army Major Timothy Christensen, director of a rail advisory team that’s assisting the Afghans.
There are 470 police officers assigned to protect Afghanistan’s existing track, which is about 0.02 percent the length of the proposed rail line. Christensen’s team has recommended that the plans include money to improve living conditions for villagers along the routes, giving them a stake in keeping the tracks safe. Security “is a challenge,” Christensen says, “but it’s not insurmountable.”
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