Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Central Asian states are stepping up efforts to engage with post-war Afghanistan economically as fears grow about the security implications that the US military withdrawal could have on the region as a whole.
Several of the Central Asian republics are pursuing plans for new railways to Afghanistan. Ashgabat has been the main driving force behind plans to build the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway since the three countries sighed an agreement in March 2013. The Turkmen government wants construction of the 400-kilometre line to start as early as July. Feasibility studies are already underway, and President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has told officials to organise a groundbreaking ceremony as soon as possible.
Several routes are still under discussion, but the line is expected to run from the Turkmen town of Atamyrat in the southeastern corner of the country into Afghanistan, to Akina-Andhoi, 650km from Kabul. From Akina-Andhoi, it will run east to Pyandzh in Tajikistan. The Asian Development Bank has said it may finance the line.
As well as helping to connect Afghanistan to the two Central Asian states, it will also provide a direct rail link between Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which are separated by Uzbekistan's Surhondarya region - a major benefit to Tajikistan, which has poor relations with Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile Uzbekistan, Afghanistan's top trading partner in Central Asia, finished building the Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif in 2011. Just days after plans for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan line was announced, Uzbekistan's state railways operator Uzbekiston Temir Yullari (UTY) said it was considering an extension to the existing line.
UTY has already started feasibility studies. The on the 230 kilometre extension is expected to cost around $450m, with the Central Asia Regional Economic Co-operation (CAREC) Programme is expected to provide funding.
As the withdrawal of international troops - expected to be completed by the end of 2014 - gets underway, the Central Asian republics, three of which border Afghanistan, and other international actors in particular the US, are looking at the potential for economic integration to contribute to regional security.
Kazakhstan, which has no shared border but is the region's economic leader, has been actively promoting ties. For several years, for example, Afghan students have been given scholarships to Kazakhstani universities. Astana has also been working to increase cooperation with Afghanistan in the economic sphere, with joint analysis and forecasting centres due to be opened in Almaty, Astana and Kabul. In March 2013, Forbes.kz reported that Afghanistan's Ghazanfar Bank is planning to open a subsidiary in Kazakhstan to facilitate transactions between the two countries. Most importantly, Kazakhstan has already seen Afghanistan become one of its top wheat importers, alongside its Central Asian neighbours, Turkey and Iran.
At a briefing in Astana on April 23, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert Blake said "great progress" had been made towards integration. Citing examples of new railways and the planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, Blake said, "I think all of these show that the region is committed to regional integration.
However, despite factors such as the large Tajik and Uzbek minorities within Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics are far from keen to embrace too tightly their southern neighbour, and concern for their own security is still the top factor for regional governments. Only Tajikistan, which has the strongest cultural similarities, wants a relationship that goes deeper than the security and economic dimensions.
According to Jos Boonstra, senior researcher at think tank FRIDE, Central Asian governments have tended to exaggerate the twin threats of terrorism and drug trafficking in connection to Afghanistan, both to ensure continued engagement from the US and Europe, and to distract from security issues at home. Recently, however, "most Central Asian governments have become more realistic about not only the threats, but also the opportunities. Perhaps the most notable example is Turkmenistan, which has become more active in its discussions with its partners - the EU, US, Russia - but also in its relations with Afghanistan, with trade, electricity and gas exports and so on," Boonstra says .
Boonstra points out that rather than a Central Asian Afghanistan policy, each of the five republics have individual agendas. "There are grand plans for fostering regional cooperation and trade, but basically these countries each have their own interest. For Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, for example, this is especially linked to transport routes and electricity."
In addition to the scramble to take part in the reverse supply chain along the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), the Central Asian republics are also aware of opportunities to supply the Afghan market with electricity.
Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan already export electricity to Afghanistan. Uzbekistan started exporting power in 2009 and has helped maintain a 24-hour supply in Kabul. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are also exporters, and Tajikistan is hoping that major new hydropower projects and the planned CASA-1000 (Central Asia-South Asia) electricity transmission project will give a boost to exports. CASA-1000, a high-capacity power line that will export Tajik and Kyrgyz electricity south to Afghanistan and Pakistan, will allow Tajikistan to rival Uzbekistan as the main supplier to the Afghan market.
Meanwhile, there are also hopes for a peaceful Afghanistan in future, which would make it possible to open up southern import and export routes for the landlocked Central Asian states which are currently oriented mostly north and east. The most ambitious project is the TAPI pipeline, which will deliver Turkmen natural gas to south Asia. The four participating countries are trying to find investors and attract international oil companies, with the aim of building the pipeline by 2018.
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