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KABUL — A new railroad being built in northern Afghanistan could bolster precarious supply routes for western troops fighting in the landlocked Central Asian nation.

Work on the rail line, which will link Mazar-e-Sharif with Termez, Uzbekistan, began this week. The $160 million project is co-funded by the U.S. and Japan.

Afghan officials hope the railroad will help the country revive its place as a key crossroads for trade between east and west. Aside from a 4.5-mile stretch of track that once linked the royal palace with central Kabul in the 1920s, the 47-mile railroad will be the first in the country’s history.

With U.S. supply convoys through Pakistan coming under increasing attack in recent years, the railroad is also expected to bolster U.S. and NATO efforts to supply its troops in Afghanistan.

“It can and will make a big difference,” a NATO spokesman, German Lt. Col. Goetz Hasske, told Reuters news service. “We can get fuel and other equipment from the north much easier into the area.”

The U.S. reached an agreement in early 2009 to begin moving “nonlethal” supplies along a seven-country route through Russia and Central Asia. Currently, those supplies are shipped by rail from Europe to Uzbekistan and then either trucked across the Afghan border or continue along another rail line to Tajikistan, which also shares a border with Afghanistan.

The rail link between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, however, has frequently been closed due to a long-running dispute between the two countries over water rights. This week, Tajik officials said some 300 NATO cargo containers are being held on the Uzbek side of the border.

Afghanistan’s isolation, rugged terrain and lack of infrastructure has made supplying troops there a continual headache.

Last year, the U.S. paid $180 million to Kyrgyzstan after the Kyrgyz government threatened to close Manas Air Base, a key hub for troops and cargo. Flights from Manas were briefly suspended in early April after riots toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The new Kyrgyz government has said it will evaluate the future of the base after parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

gisickm@estripes.osd.mil

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