Tashkent has been working on creating shorter and cheaper transportation corridors to access seaports since the country’s independence. On February 2, the first trilateral talks were held among officials from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The territory of Afghanistan, itself a landlocked country, has always been a critical country for Tashkent in negotiating access to ports of a littoral country.
The trilateral talks, attended by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Investment and Foreign Trade of Uzbekistan Sardor Umurzakov, Advisor to Pakistani Prime Minister on Commerce and Investment Abdul Razzaq Dawood, and Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, ended by adopting the Mazar-i Shareef-Kabul-Peshawar Road Map.
According to the roadmap plan, the construction of the 600-km railroad should take five years and will allow access to the Pakistani ports of Gwadar and Karachi. Central Asia’s other projects with Afghanistan — the Surkhon-Puli Humri high voltage electricity line to allow Uzbekistan to supply electricity to Afghanistan and the CASA-1000 regional electricity project supplying surplus electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan — will pass by the same communication lanes and will distribute construction expenses among the three projects.
Tashkent has further arguments in favor of prioritizing access to Pakistani ports. The project presents new opportunities to all participants. For Pakistan and other countries, such as India, the road would open opportunities for connecting with markets of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) by rail. Currently, these trade relations are supported by sea routes only.
The road is said to cut transportation time from 30 to 15 days from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries to Pakistan and reduce expenses by 30-35 percent. (The project will benefit not only Central Asian countries, but would slash transportation costs between Russia and Pakistan by 15-20 percent, too.)
Uzbekistan is currently highly reliant on the Iranian seaport of Bandar Abbas, accessed through Turkmenistan. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s earlier efforts were focused on continuing to use Iran’s port, but exploring options to access it more directly, such as via a new railroad from Afghanistan’s Herat. Uzbekistan’s other earlier efforts, such as the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Oman railroad corridors, also clearly involved Iran.
Tashkent appears to be reevaluating its plans in favor of de-emphasizing access to Iranian ports, and the economic rhetoric is dominant. According to Eldar Aripov, director of the Institute of Strategic and Regional Studies, the Mazar-i-Shareef-Peshawar project offers an entirely new transportation option while the Herat option merely expands existing routes. The cost of transporting a container from Tashkent to Karachi would be approximately $1,400-$1,600, while on the Tashkent-Bandar-Abbas route it is $2,600-$3,000. Furthermore, the construction of the Herat connection will be complicated, but the Pakistan route would tap into a number of existing projects.
Two years ago, Aripov spoke of two other reasons why the Pakistani ports should receive priority over other railroad options. The first reason is that the Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar road is the shortest route linking Uzbekistan to a seaport. Second, the road together with the Uzbekistan-Kyrgyzstan-China corridor unites the four largest corridors in China, the CIS, Europe, and South Asia.
Bringing three countries into the same room to sign a common document is a serious stride toward constructing the railroad. Tashkent stays away from making geopolitical comments, but the Iran-U.S. escalations following the killing of Qassem Soleimani a year ago and Iran’s continued precarious geopolitical situation could arguably have contributed to Tashkent’s decision to choose Pakistan’s ports. That choice indicates a small step away from the risky partner toward a more stable option.