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Afghanistan: Reconstruction Of 'Ring Roads' May Revitalize Regional Trade

In an international effort to help the recovery of war-ravaged Afghanistan, work has begun on the reconstruction of the country's transportation network. The restoration of the so-called "ring roads" linking major Afghan cities is of primary importance. The roads also provide a key link to the world outside, with connections to Afghanistan's neighbors. RFE/RL looks at what impact these projects, if realized, are likely to have on Central and South Asia.

Prague, 25 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As repair work begins on Afghanistan's devastated highway system, the focus is on the restoration of the so-called "ring roads" connecting major Afghan cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif.

The reconstruction of the 2,400-kilometer ring roads is proceeding in tandem with an additional 700 kilometers of roads linking Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Some observers say these projects, if and when they are completed, are likely to have a major economic, political, and social impact on Afghanistan and the wider regions of Central and South Asia.

Frank Polman is Afghanistan program director at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila. He told RFE/RL the ring-road project should be completed in about 2 1/2 years. "Two sections of these roads' implementation started just about [two weeks] ago. One is from [Kandahar] to Spin Boldak, that is just at the border of Pakistan -- that is one of the international link roads. And the other one is running from Kabul to Kandahar; that is a major section of the ring road."

Most of the roads are already in place. But two decades of conflict have left just 17 percent of the country's 6,000 kilometers of roads in good condition. The ADB says it will cost some $650 million to reconstruct the ring roads and international links. The primary backers so far are the ADB, the World Bank, the United States, the EU, and Saudi Arabia.

Polman said the international community's commitment has allowed the road project to move quickly. "The time that an institution like ADB normally requires to get road-construction projects started is way, way longer than what we do in Afghanistan. Normally speaking, between a request for assistance and actual implementation takes -- for ADB -- about two years. In Afghanistan, we have been able to start our first road project within six months."

How fast projects can move ahead, Polman stresses, is essentially determined by a country's political stability and security situation. Moreover, the ADB official says, better roads will further contribute to Afghanistan's stability by providing jobs, increasing trade and reducing the distance between the central government and the regions.

Beyond Afghanistan, Polman said the Central Asian governments have a keen interest in seeing road links reestablished. "Well, I think the Central Asian republics would like to see an access [route] through Afghanistan, Pakistan, to some port in the Indian Ocean. They also would like to see goods transported from the Central Asian republics into Afghanistan, Pakistan, and also India and China. Afghanistan constitutes historically a very strategic location for the transfer of goods and trade in that part of the world."

In an interview with RFE/RL, a spokesman from Tajikistan's Transport Ministry, Muhammadyusuf Shodiev, explained what the completion of road links with Afghanistan means for his country. "Passing from Tajikistan to Afghanistan, and from there to Iran, would certainly be another move to break Tajikistan's isolation. All the Central Asian countries are trying to build as many international-standard highways as possible between their nations."

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent political analyst based in Pakistan, told RFE/RL the rehabilitation of the Afghan roads will lead to a "tremendous increase" of trade between Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and the Central Asian states. "The trade will improve. For example, agricultural goods will go to Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there is a shortage of agricultural goods like wheat [and] rice. Similarly, Afghanistan can send handicrafts and fruit -- dry fruit -- back to the neighboring states. So I think if this project is completed, this will benefit the people of all these countries."

Furthermore, Rizvi says, the development of trade across the region may have an indirect positive impact on relations between Pakistan and India. "If the trade between Pakistan, Afghanistan, [and] Central Asia improves because of these roads, this will be an incentive for India to improve India-Pakistan relations, and benefit from the new opportunities these roads would provide."

Aftab Kazi, a researcher at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, agreed. He told RFE/RL he is enthusiastic about the ring-road project. "Number one, it's a major effort to reconstruct Afghanistan. Number two, it is an attempt to break the isolation of the Central Asian region. Three, it will revive all the trade and other transportation networks. And then also it will add a new process of regional political socialization."

Regionally, Kazi said, the ring roads and their international links will help revitalize a major portion of the historical Silk routes. Road links in the north, he says, will connect Afghanistan with the Soviet-era road network providing substantial trade and development opportunities between Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Kazi added that an effective new transport network is also likely to give additional impetus for oil- and gas-pipeline construction.

But roads alone, he said, may not ensure prosperity and stability in Afghanistan. With Afghanistan just beginning the difficult process of building a functioning multicultural nation, the construction of roads should not be evaluated merely in economic terms.

New transportation networks, he explained, always have an impact in social, psychological, and political ways as well. One particularly key issue that must be considered alongside the road reconstruction, he added, is migration.

Hooman Peimani, a Geneva-based independent consultant, said he is skeptical about the short-term benefits of the Afghan road projects. He says the country's continued instability, combined with Central Asia's lack of "major" trade activities, mean the roads will not be an immediate jackpot for Afghanistan. "What is interesting is that [Central Asian] exports are mainly cotton. Countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan also export oil and gas. And those exports [traveling] via Afghanistan are out of the question because of the instability of that country. And in terms of their products, cotton is now being exported via Iran and I don't think that they need an additional road for the moment."

But in the long run, Peimani says, a stable Afghanistan and stepped-up trade activities in Central Asian states could change the situation for Afghanistan, by using its new road network and transit fees.

(Tohir Safarov of RFE/RL's Tajik Service contributed to this report.)