KABUL, Afghanistan — Operators ran the first train down Afghanistan's first major railroad Wednesday, clearing the way for a long-awaited service from the northern border that should speed up the U.S. military's crucial supply flow and become a hub for future trade.
A cargoless train chugged into a newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Wednesday after a 47-mile (75-kilometer) trial run from the border with Uzbekistan, said Deputy Public Works Minister Noor Gul Mangal, who was on hand for the arrival.
The new rail line is the first stage of an ambitious plan to link landlocked Afghanistan to its neighbors' extensive railways for the first time, eventually opening up new trade routes for goods traveling between Europe and Asia.
Afghanistan has never had a functional rail network, though many projects have been begun and later abandoned, victims of maneuvers of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain, and then political bickering in the early 20th century. Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.
So the line from the border town of Hairatan to Mazar-i-Sharif marks a milestone in a violence-wracked country eager for good news on the horizon. It also could be a key route for the U.S. troop withdrawal beginning next year and, eventually, a gateway for Afghan exports that would travel to its neighbors, said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington
"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," Starr said.
In the short term, service will help release a bottleneck at Hairatan dry port that is now holding up goods — including fuel and other supplies for American troops — while they are loaded off of trains and onto trucks for a hazardous journey over Afghanistan's northern mountain roads.
"This port of Hairatan is where the bulk of commercial cargo is coming from into the country, so it is very important," said Juan Miranda, head of Central and West Asia Department of the Asian Development Bank, which funded the $165 million project.
Allowing trains to come straight in will help Hairatan handle up to 10 times as much cargo, from 4,000 tons per month now to 25,000-40,000 tons per month once the service is fully operating, the ADB says. Once in Mazar-i-Sharif, the goods can be transferred to most of the rest of Afghanistan on surface roads.
Uzbekistan's state-owned SE Sogdiana Trans will run the commercial train service, ADB's Afghanistan representative Noriko Sato said.
A U.S. military spokesman says the new railway will be key to supplying American troops — and possibly also withdrawing non-lethal cargo during the American troop pullout set to begin next year.
"We do not have numbers yet, (but) we anticipate that the rail line will be able to speed the transit of cargo into Afghanistan and out of it," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The U.S. has recently shifted much of its supply line to the north from routes going through Pakistan, and the northern routes' importance was brought into sharp focus last month when Pakistan — angered by a disputed NATO strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers — closed its two border crossings for U.S. supplies.
Just three years ago, about 90 percent of nonmilitary supplies to Afghanistan went through Karachi, Pakistan. Today, close to 75 percent of cargo is shipped through the northern network.
Just as the Pakistani supply line has been attacked by insurgents, the newer northern routes through Mazar-i-Sharif and other cities are likely to also become targets. In 2009, Taliban forces in the northern province of Kunduz hijacked two fuel trucks, resulting in a fiery NATO airstrike that killed dozens.
While many fear instability or even civil war in Afghanistan after 2014 when most foreign forces leave, others are busy planning for a future in which the country could be a hub in a New Silk Road reconnecting spice and silk routes from centuries past.
The 10-country Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation project — supported by the ADB along with the U.N., World Bank and International Monetary Fund — envisions a network of some 2,250 miles (3,600 kilometers) of roads and 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometers) of railway linking China and India to the Middle East and Europe, although the project is far from complete.
For years, Afghanistan's poor roads and rails have been the project's missing link to much of that network.
With the northern Hairatan rail line ready to open for business, Afghan officials are already planning to expand its infant railroad with another proposed line to Turkmenistan to the northwest, Mangal said Wednesday.
He said a delegation would meet with Turkmenistan officials to discuss the expansion at the official inauguration for the Hairatan-Mazar-i-Sharif line, which he said would come soon though he wouldn't give a date.
"This is the first railway in Afghanistan and of course when we inaugurate it there will be a big ceremony," Mangal said.
Johnson reported from Bangkok.