By: Mir Ahmad Mashaal
Today, there are few countries in the world that do not use the advantageous system of railways for transportation. Beyond this, regional and extra-regional rail networks connect most regions of the world, and this process is continuing to expand. In fact, it can be claimed that today's world is a world of trade and transit, and economic development and, consequently, the development of other aspects of human life are the result of the growth and expansion of commercial exchanges. Although currently sea and air transportation systems have developed significantly and most of the passengers and goods are transported through air and sea, countries make huge investments in land transportation systems, specially railways.
However, Afghanistan is perhaps the only country that does not have a domestic and international railway network. Although currently this country does not have a domestic railway network, it has been connected to its three neighbors, namely Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and recently Iran through railways. Among these three railways, the Khaf-Herat railway which connects Afghanistan to Iran and has recently been activated between the two countries, is of particular importance. In this report, firstly, Khaf-Herat railway is briefly introduced, and then its importance is examined in internal, bilateral and regional dimensions.
Specifications of Khaf-Herat railway
Khaf-Herat railway is an old project that dates back to the Muhammad Daud Khan period in the 1970s. Due to the outbreak of wars in Afghanistan, the implementation of this plan was postponed for several decades. Finally, however, its construction started in in Iran and Afghanistan, and it was inaugurated in December 2020. Through this 225 km- railway, Khaf in Iran is connected to Herat in Afghanistan.
This railway is the most modern and longest existing railway in Afghanistan. This railway has a two-story station with an area of 1,600 square meters in Rozanak, and a passenger station with standard facilities and services for passengers at the end of the third section. Also, a large building has been constructed at Shamtigh border, where all passport, customs and border services can be done there. In the passenger sector, coordination should be done between Iran and Afghanistan for ticket sale and passenger transportation. The volume of initial transportation of this railway is expected to be 6 million tons of cargo, and one million passengers per year.
Domestic importance for Afghanistan
Before discussing the mutual importance of Khaf-Herat railway, it is appropriate to take a look at the domestic importance and benefits of this railway for Afghanistan itself. Since Afghanistan is a consumer country and has a strong demand for foreign goods, the activation of this route can increase this country's access to the goods and products of other countries, especially Iran, many times more. Also, the use of railway to transport goods, which is done at a cheaper cost, will lead to a decrease in the prices of Iran's exports to Afghanistan, and they are available to the people of Afghanistan at a lower price. Another advantage of the opening of this line is that the heavy traffic that exists on the Dogharun-Islam Qala road and dry will be significantly reduced. Another advantage is for Afghan travelers. Currently, passenger traffic is carried out from the Dogharun-Islam Qala road border. With the implementation of the plan to transfer passengers by railway, along with the reduction of traffic on the existing route, passengers will travel more comfortably, in a shorter time, and at a lower cost between the two countries. This advantage is extremely important because thousands of passengers travel between the two countries every year. From a more strategic point of view, the huge advantage of Khaf-Herat railway is that Herat, which used to be called the Gateway of India, will be upgraded to the Gateway of India-Central Asia through this railway. In fact, with its new geographical location, Herat will turn into a three-way hub of Iran-Central Asia-South Asia.
In addition, Khawaf-Herat railway is strategically important for both Afghanistan and Iran in several ways. Apart from the fact that Iran's railway connection to Afghanistan is considered a major step in diversifying the country's connection with another neighbor, it clearly provides Iran with the opportunity to fulfill its long-term goal of increasing exports to Afghanistan. Although the amount of Iran's exports to Afghanistan is currently in a good condition compared to other Afghanistan's neighbors, relying solely on trade from road routes in the future will not be able to respond to the increasing speed of that country's exports to Afghanistan. Particularly that Afghanistan is currently connected to its two northern neighbors - Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - through railway. Therefore, the increase in Afghanistan's future import capacities, requires Iran to be connected to Afghanistan through rail lines. Another importance that this railway has for Iran in a more strategic way - of course not at the moment but in the future perspective - is this country’s connection to Central Asia and China through Afghanistan. Although Afghanistan still lacks a rail network system and the current final route of the discussed railway is Herat, but this railway has the capacity to connect Iran to Central Asian countries and China, which will be discussed in more detail in the next section.
Apart from the importance of Khaf-Herat railway for Iran, the construction of this railway is considered much more valuable for Afghanistan. The first advantage of this railway for Afghanistan is connecting Afghanistan to the national railway network of Iran. Through this railway, Afghanistan is connected to the Mashhad-Zahedan-Chabahar railway network. On the other hand, through this railway, Afghanistan is easily connected to Iran's sea ports in the Caspian Sea. On a larger scale, Afghanistan will be connected to the Turkish railway network through the Iranian railway network, and through it to the European transcontinental railway network. In fact, it is amazing to imagine how far the Khaf-Herat railway can connect Afghanistan to the railway networks in Southwest Asia and Europe. The greater importance of this advantage gets more prominent when we compare it with the Lapis Lazuli Route. In the past, Afghanistan paid great attention to the Lapis Lazuli Project (the route that connects Afghanistan to Europe through Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey) to connect with Europe, and made great efforts to implement it.
Although the Lapis Lazuli Route also has its own advantages, but compared to it, the Iranian route which connects Afghanistan to Europe by covering a very short distance through an integrated network of railways, is far superior in all respects. Another importance and advantage of the Khaf-Herat railway for Afghanistan is that this railway enables a low-cost, high-speed access as well as the transfer of large volumes of goods from Iran's sea and land ports to Afghanistan. Afghanistan has always suffered from the lack of access to sea ports. The Khaf-Herat railway makes Iran's sea and land ports accessible to Afghanistan. Apart from that, this access through the railway doubles its importance because compared to road lines, railway have many advantages that Afghanistan can directly benefit from for transportation.
On the other hand, Although Afghanistan has access to seaports through Pakistan, but this access is currently provided through road routes, while the Khaf-Herat railway provides this access by rail, which is considered a double advantage. Another important issue that the Khaf-Herat railway brings to Afghanistan, is the multi-purpose use of this railway by Afghanistan.
In short, Afghanistan can make three simultaneous uses of this railway. First, using this railway for cheaper and faster access to Iranian products; second, utilizing this railway to access Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea; and third, connecting to Turkey and Europe through this railway.
Along with the economic advantages of Khaf-Herat railway, the activation of this line also brings positive political feedback for both countries. Although this railway was opened during the previous government of Afghanistan, but the reactivation of it is very important in the current situation when the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan. After the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the restoration and activation of this railway indicates the great interest of the Taliban authorities to have good relations with Iran. Meanwhile, some plotters are awaiting to destroy Afghanistan's good relations with Iran, and they are creating such an atmosphere that it seems as if the Islamic Emirate will experience tension and conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Apart from this positive feedback, the expansion of economic relations between countries helps to further warm political relations. So, this railway is promising for warm and strong relations between the two countries in the future.
The regional importance of Khaf-Herat railway is that it connects the two major regions of East and West Asia. Apart from the fact that each of the countries of Central Asia, especially Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, can connect to Iran through this railway in Afghanistan and use Iran's geographical location to connect to Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf, this railway can be the starting point of regional corridors such as the Iran-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway, Five Nations Railway Corridor (FNRC), the China-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Iran corridor, and an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Iran-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway: The Iran-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway plan, whose agreement was signed by the officials of these three countries about 4 years ago, is the first and most urgent plan that is just waiting for implementation. Now, with the activation of the Khaf-Herat railway, there is no more room for delay in its implementation. This project which can connect Tajikistan to Iran through Afghanistan is considered an urgent priority for the three countries, and is an incentive for another larger project known as the Five Nations Corridor. The Five Nations Corridor, which includes China and Kyrgyzstan in addition to the aforementioned three countries, is a grand plan that connects East Asia to West Asia. If this transit line is built, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China will be connected through a railway network.
In addition to rail access to other countries, the countries along this route also benefit from the advantages of goods transit. Also, the launch of the Khaf-Herat railway can be an incentive to connect it to the China-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan railway which is currently active. The implementation of this project is perhaps the easiest and cheapest plan, because only the two cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif need to be connected through a railway. With the construction of this part of the railway, China in the east and Iran in the west will be easily connected to each other. The Khaf-Herat railway line can also complete a part of the big puzzle of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This big global plan, whose implementation is guaranteed by billions of dollars of investment, is supposed to connect China as the world's largest economy to other parts of the world. Although China had almost left Afghanistan out of this plan due to political and security reasons in the past, the Khaf-Herat railway can strengthen China's motivation to place this route as a main route, considering the fact that Five Nations Corridor project is also considered as a major part of it. In other dimensions, the Khaf-Herat railway can be considered as a means of connecting Asia to Europe through the southern side of the Caspian Sea. This issue, which is one of China's major goals in the Belt and Road Initiative, can be easily implemented by the Khaf-Herat railway. With the active and large railway network of Iran, as well as the Turkish railway network in the west and the Central Asian railway network in the east, the only small task is to connect Herat to Mazar-e-Sharif inside Afghanistan. By completing this section, a route of several thousand kilometers will be connected to each other.
In general, some positive results can be obtained from the Khaf-Herat railway. The first result is that the railway will create a revolution in mutual trade between Iran and Afghanistan. The railway also encourages regional countries to resume infrastructure projects in the region that were halted after the regime change in Afghanistan. Although the Khaf-Herat railway is considered a small step for increasing trade exchanges between the two neighboring countries, it can be an opening for regional and interregional connection - which will definitely be of interest to the beneficiary countries, especially the Central Asian countries and China, in view of the future needs. In addition to the above-mentioned cases, which are mostly economic, this project and subsequent projects will result in strengthening the political and social relations between the regional countries.
Mir Ahmad Mashaal, is a senior expert of International Relations