PAKISTAN has long been striving for greater surface connectivity via rail and road routes to boost trade, tourism and cultural interaction with the Central Asian states. The trilateral protocol signed by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan yesterday to link Termiz with Kurram via Mazar-i-Sharif by connecting the Uzbek rail network with Pakistan Railways is also part of that same quest. The project will support passenger travel and freight services. It will significantly contribute to the growth of regional trade and economic development of participating nations by cutting cargo delivery time between Uzbekistan and Pakistan by about five days and slashing goods transportation costs by 40pc. The participating countries have set themselves an ambitious target of completing the scheme by the end of 2027 though. This project is in addition to a more ambitious plan to construct a new 573km trans-Afghan railway track, the roadmap for which has already been signed by the three nations, to link Central Asia with ports on the Arabian Sea. It will allow Central Asian nations to reach the world markets by accessing Pakistan’s seaports through the Termiz-Jalalabad-Peshawar route.
The two projects will indeed open up landlocked Central Asia to the world for investment and trade, and help Pakistan access the region’s and Russian energy markets. Nevertheless, these plans will remain a pipe dream for as long as Afghanistan — the key to the success of any such scheme — does not stabilise and security conditions in that war-torn country don’t improve. At the same time, Islamabad also needs to effectively tackle security issues in both Balochistan, which is a vital link to the expansion of CPEC and economic cooperation with Central Asia, and KP. Yet, the potential of linkages with the Central Asian Republics cannot be exploited fully without involving other South Asian countries, especially India. Only a fully open, secure and cooperative South Asia can guarantee the success of these railway projects.
Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2023