May 11, 2010:
NATO has negotiated a transportation deal to ship supplies via railroad from Western Europe, through Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, to Afghanistan. With this, it would cost $400 a ton to get supplies into Afghanistan, versus three times that to truck it in from Pakistani ports, or $14,000 a ton to fly stuff in. This deal has been under negotiation since 2003, but Russia kept agreeing to it, and then withdrawing cooperation. What has finally compelled Russia to cooperate is the growing problems they are having with heroin and opium coming out of Afghanistan into, and through, Russia.
Shipping supplies to their troops in Afghanistan via Russian and Central Asian railroads has advantages for the nations it passes through. Russia has an economic interest in this, as more traffic makes it financially attractive for Central Asian nations to invest in upgrading their rail connections to Afghanistan. Tajikistan, for example, is extending its railroad to the Afghan border by building another 145 kilometers of track. Afghanistan itself has no railroads, mainly because there is not enough economic activity in the country to make this worthwhile. Foreign donors have contributed billions of dollars since 2002 to build more paved roads in Afghanistan. Currently, there are 42,000 kilometers of roads there, but only 29 percent are paved. There are few rivers, much less navigable ones, and no access to the sea. The place has long been a logistical nightmare. Most Afghans recognize that roads will make the country more prosperous, by making it economically feasible to export many commodities, and cheaper to bring in, and distribute, foreign goods. Naturally, the Taliban are opposed to all this road building, as it threatens the poverty and ancient customs that Islamic conservatives are so fond of.
Afghanistan's neighbors are eager to trade, and are using the U.S. and NATO need for more access to upgrade their transport links to the country. For example, 90 cargo containers were shipped through the Caucasus, via Turkey, Azerbaijan, the Caspian sea and Kazakhstan, to Afghanistan last year, as a test. It's also possible to ship containers across the Caspian to a port in Turkmenistan, and thence to Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO wants to move up to 50,000 containers a year via these new Russian and Caucasus routes. This makes it economically feasible to ship more civilian goods this way. As the traffic increases, it makes economic sense for Afghanistan to start building rail lines, something most nations began doing over a century ago.