The proposed railway line from Turkmenistan to Tajikistan, via Afghanistan, marked a milestone on November 28 when the first station on the Afghan side of the Turkmen border opened.
Turkmenistan's President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani attended the ceremony at the Aqina railway station and watched as the first train reached the station after a 3.5-kilometer journey from the border.
Ghani called it a "historic day for Afghanistan and its people," and Berdymukhammedov said the Imamnazar-Aqina railroad "could play a key role in trade between the two countries."
Possibly, but it's likely to be some time before trade really picks up along the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan (TAT) railway line.
The opening of the station at Aqina is a small step in what promises to be the very difficult task of constructing the railway line to Tajikistan. Turkmenistan completed the 85-kilometer section of the railway on its territory in November 2015, so it has already taken almost a year to advance the line less than 4 kilometers into Afghanistan (track work was completed in late October 2016).
The exact route through Afghanistan is still under discussion, and with good reason.
The planned route of the railway line goes through parts of Afghanistan where fighting has been increasing in recent years. From Aqina, the TAT railway is to go some 30 kilometers south to Andkhoy before turning east toward Sheberghan, Mazar-e Sharif, Kholm, and Kunduz, then entering Tajikistan at the Shir Khan Bandar border post.
Aqina and Andkhoy are located in Afghanistan's Faryab Province, whose capital, Maymana, has been in danger of falling to insurgents at least twice this year. Parts of the highway from Sheberghan to Mazar-e Sharif have fallen under Taliban control several times this year, requiring the Afghan government to launch security operations to clear the highway. And the last stretch takes the railway line through Kunduz Province, including Kunduz City, which the Taliban and their foreign militant allies have seized twice since late September 2015.
The TAT line is billed as being part of a greater Asian transportation network. The ceremony in Aqina came right after Turkmenistan hosted a UN Global Sustainable Transport Conference.
But TAT was originally conceived as a way of connecting Turkmenistan to Tajikistan without having to cross Uzbekistan. A champion of the project was Iran, since Tehran has been experiencing problems shipping goods to Tajikistan via Uzbekistan. Iranian authorities hoped to ship cargo by rail to and from Turkmenistan along the new railway to Tajikistan. So the project's foundation came not as part of regional cooperation but rather as a way to avoid Uzbekistan's involvement in a transit route to Tajikistan.
And it is still not clear where all the funding will come from to construct the remaining section of the railway line. The Asian Development Bank and the Islamic Development Bank have promised to help fund the estimated $2 billion project.
Turkmenistan paid for and built the section on its territory. Tajikistan has already said it cannot afford to build the approximately 50-kilometer section on its territory and Afghanistan of course will need financial assistance for TAT construction on its territory.