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New rail route to China carries hope for Afghan economy

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 7, 2016

KABUL, Afghanistan — A Chinese cargo train arrived in the northern Afghan port city of Hairatan on the border with Uzbekistan Wednesday, part of an initiative Afghan officials hope will boost the country’s economy.

The 84-car train, carrying textiles, electronics and other goods valued at $20 million, was the first to transit a 3,000-kilometer (1,864 mile) rail line linking the port on the Amu Darya River, near Afghanistan’s third largest city of Mazar-e-Sharif, through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to the Chinese port city of Haimen near Shanghai.

Part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a massive investment in the development of regional overland and maritime trade routes, the railway’s operations began as Afghanistan seeks to rebuild its economy and wean itself from foreign assistance after 15 years of war with the Taliban.

“This is a very important occasion,” said Musafir Quqandi, spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce and Industries. “We are opening a new route between Afghanistan and China that reduces costs and cuts the time our Afghan businessmen can get their goods.”

The withdrawal of most foreign combat forces in late 2014 and a resulting loss of jobs for thousands of Afghans working to support or supply the international mission has hit Afghanistan hard. Officials hope improved trade with China will help in the recovery.

Much of landlocked Afghanistan’s imports and exports passes through Pakistan, but the Central Asian neighbors have a fraught relationship, and flaring tensions have caused transit delays at the border that add to the cost of goods. Last month, the Friendship Gate near Chaman, a busy border crossing, was closed for nearly two weeks after Afghan protesters burned a Pakistani flag there.

Before, goods traveling from China to Afghanistan via Pakistan’s Karachi port could take one to three months to arrive. The new route, known as the Sino-Afghan Special Transportation Railway, bypasses Pakistan and cuts the time by half, or more. The first train left China on Aug. 25, the day the railway was inaugurated, slated to arrive in Afghanistan 15 days later. It arrived two days early.

Officials are also hopeful the new route, like the Silk Road that made Afghanistan a trade hub of the ancient world, will boost Afghan exports, including rugs, marble, saffron and dried fruit.

“This is very good news for Afghan businessmen as well as the economic development of the country,” Quqandi said.

Over the past several years both Chinese and Afghan officials have floated the idea of opening up for traffic the 130-mile-long Wakhan Corridor, a thin, sparsely populated sliver of Afghan territory surrounded by some of the world’s most mountainous regions, that touches China at its eastern end. The remote 2,000-year-old caravan route, once crossed by Marco Polo, fell into disuse since the Chinese Revolution in 1949. But more recently, both sides have spoken about the possibility of building modern road and rail connections and even an oil pipeline through the region.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

garland.chad@stripes.com

Twitter: @chadgarland

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