This may sound strange but frankly, the first time I travelled to the Amu Darya region of northern Afghanistan was on foot. 18 years ago, when we didn’t have an embassy in Kabul and Pakistan wouldn’t permit me anyway to walk across the Khyber Pass.
I was ‘trekking’ to meet up with Rashid Dostum in his famous castle in Shibirghan (Jowzjan province) – via Tashkent to Termez on the Uzbek-Afghan border and into Afghanistan. For an Indian diplomat, it was an altogether unusual situation, having to walk across the Termez-Heiraton bridge across the Amu Darya (‘no-man’s land’) and cross into the Mujahideen-ruled Afghanistan with which India claimed ‘civilizational’ ties.
The sturdy bridge fenced by steel girders was built by the Soviets and it was actually a rail track that ended in the Afghan ‘port’ of Heiraton. Termez, of course, was a massive military base, which was the biggest in Soviet Central Asia and it coordinated the dispatch of supplies for the Soviet troops in Afghanistan. By the way, General Boris Gromov walked across the same bridge on a wind-swept winter morning as he personally led the last Soviet detachment out of Afghanistan in 1989. Thus, Afghanistan, technically speaking, is not entirely new to the fascinating world of the railways. Nonetheless, the opening of the railway connecting Heiraton with Mazar-i-Sharif is invariably suffused with certain poignancy.
The railway system promises to open up a new world to the Afghan people. As for that, it is the same anywhere, including for British India. The arrival of the railway system makes the stuff of legends. My wife’s ancestral home is full of memorabilia of the construction of the Bengal-Nagpur railway ['BNR'] — India’s equivalent of the 75-kilometre long Heiraton-Mazar-i-Sharif line — which was an incredible engineering feat at that time in very tough conditions, built in the early part of the last century by a carefully chosen team of British engineers deputed specially from London that included her grandfather, who, incidentally, went on to become the first chief engineer of the Indian railways in the British times. The folklore lingers on for generations, as any ‘railway family’ would testify.
Imagine an Afghan from Bamyan first taking a train journey with his wives and his pack of little sons and daughters; it could be as unspeakable an ecstasy as when he first glimpses the sea licking the shores with its waves. But the geopolitics of the Afghan railway system is going to be no less spell-bounding. Most observers are viewing the new line in Mazar-i-Sharif as a cog in the wheel of the Afghan war, which would facilitate quicker and cheaper transportation of the supplies for the NATO troops via Termez.
But behind that is unfolding a panorama that will change the face of Afghanistan phenomenally. I am speaking about the plans being worked out for an entire regional rail grid in which Afghanistan can act as the hub. Mainly, it is going to be the railway system that China is planning through Afghanistan that is destined to change the scope of the great game in the region over the Silk Road. The proposed line, which is already under construction in segments, originates from Xinjiang and enters Afghanistan via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and can thereupon have two branch lines, leading to Iran and Pakistan respectively.
For China, the rail line opens a strategic link with the Persian Gulf and South Asia, bypassing Malacca Straits. If Pakistan plays its card carefully — and I can see that finally Pakistan is able to grasp the quintessence of the great game and is getting its act together — it will have a key role to play in China’s hugely ambitious plans of developing the Silk Road toward the ports of Karachi and Gwadar. By the way, the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan who met in Moscow early this week exchanged notes on how to expedite the proposed railway line connecting China with Afghanistan.
The picture that emerges is that the region has begun looking beyond the Afghan war. Where does that leave India? A big question, indeed. We just had our famous ‘trialteral’ with US and Japan. But, will it help us in our region?
Instead of Pax Americana, the prospects are brightening actually for a regional concord between Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran as the underpinning of stability and security for Afghanistan. It really requires a ‘leap of faith’ for Indian pundits to grasp this geopolitical reality as it is unfolding slowly but inexorably. Thus, India’s neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka or Bangladesh are gearing up for a ‘new ball game’, as it were — and, Sri Lanka is already getting close to being one of Asia’s middle income countries.
– December 22, 2011