MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- From the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif to the Uzbek border, the land runs flat with barely a hillock to block the way.
It is perfect terrain for building a railway. So, since Afghanistan inaugurated construction of its northern rail line in May, progress has been fast.
Now, the Uzbek company contracted to lay the track has completed almost all of the 75-kilometer line. According to the schedule, the construction should be finished by the end of this year.
If so, Afghanistan will get its first railroad in more than 100 years. That is when a former monarch, Amir Abdurrahman, banned rail lines as potential invasion routes.
Officials say the railroad will speed up freight deliveries across the Uzbek border dramatically.
"The [delivery time] will decrease by 50 percent because the speed of rail transport is faster, since the wagons don't have to stop," says Ahmad Wali Sangar, an economic adviser to the government of Balkh Province, where Mazar-e Sharif is located. "When the cargo is loaded on the train wagons, the trader's products will be transported straight to Afghanistan."
Currently, the stops can be endless.
Revitalize The Economy
Everything headed by rail for Afghanistan has to stop at the Uzbek border and be offloaded to trucks. The offloading and resulting backups and customs checks can means weeks of delay before the cargo continues on its way.
The railroad will solve that problem by allowing containers -- which are sealed at their point of origin -- to move across the border without interruption to a major new freight terminal near Mazar-e Sharif's airport. From the terminal, the cargo can be forwarded by truck or air, making Mazar-e Sharif a major distribution hub for the country.
The Asian Development Bank, which is funding the construction with some $165 million, hopes the railway line will help revitalize the Afghan economy by bringing in goods faster and cheaper than is now possible. Among the key imports are grain, fuel, and foodstuffs from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and, farther afield, from Russia.
But the rail from the border will also enable Washington and NATO to bring in more supplies for troops, reducing the coalition's dependence on routes through Pakistan where militants routinely attack trucks. And that may make the railroad a tempting target for the Taliban.
Currently, the railroad is guarded by a force of 500 police. The headquarters of the force is a small, windswept outpost halfway between Mazar-e Sharif and the Afghan border crossing of Hairaton, where the new rail line starts.Cause To Worry
General Asghar Asghary, the head of the force, receives visitors in the post's single small concrete building. He says there are other posts scattered along the length of the track and that the force is strong enough to protect the line when it becomes operational.
"We won't need more police than we have now. The structure we have is entirely capable," Asghary says. "And even during the last three to four months, the company's trains have been coming and going a lot with workers and they are being protected."
Still, there is increasing cause to worry. The Taliban have grown powerful over the past two years in several northern provinces, particularly in the neighboring province of Konduz. Already the militia regularly attacks fuel trucks traveling from the Tajik border through Konduz and Baghlan provinces to the coalition's base at Bagram airport near Kabul.
Asghary says that U.S. officers initially visited his headquarters and promised help, including with constructing fortified perimeters around the posts. But they have not returned since and he does not know whether the aid will ever arrive. His own budget is not enough to do more than the minimum needed to fortify and winterize the outposts.
For now, guarding the railroad is light work and construction goes on unimpeded. Lack Of Technical Skills
Each day the police escort the Uzbek workers building the railroad to their construction site and then escort them home again to their camp in Hairaton.
The entirely Uzbek team is doing the work because Afghanistan long ago lost the equipment and technical skills needed for the job. But once the railway is built, some of the Uzbek technical staff will stay on to train Afghan personnel and create the basis for Afghans to extend the track further themselves in the future.
Sangar says the country today has nowhere near the money needed to build a railway network connecting its different regions. But the track which will soon be finished in Mazar-e Sharif, plus another track currently being built in Iran toward the Afghan border, create the starting points for a wider system.
Iran has reportedly completed two-thirds of a 190-kilometer rail bed from its town of Khaf to link with Herat.
If Herat were one day connected by rail to Mazar-e Sharif, some 700 kilometers away, northern Afghanistan would not only acquire a major rail line but also become a transit country for the shortest rail link between the Central Asian countries and the Gulf or Indian Ocean ports.
Whether that rail line is built will depend upon outside funding. The Asian Development Bank is funding technical surveys for such a track across northern Afghanistan but has made no commitments.