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Afghanistan Betting on Transit Corridor to Europe via Caucasus

The inaugural voyage on the new Afghanistan-Turkmenistan railway, launched last year. The railway will be part of the proposed Lapis Lazuli Corridor, connecting Afghanistan to Turkey and beyond. (photo: Afghanistan Embassy in Ashgabat)

Eurasia has no shortage of ambitious, difficult-to-implement transit route projects in the works. But even in that crowded field, a $2 billion corridor connecting Afghanistan to Europe via the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus stands out.

On November 15, officials from Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey signed an agreement in Ashgabat to build what they called the Lapis Lazuli Corridor. The aim of the agreement is to simplify customs and transportation procedures along the route, giving Afghanistan a new, relatively attractive route to ship its products to Europe. 

For Afghanistan, landlocked and surrounded a variety of difficult neighbors, the advantages are obvious. “Afghanistan will get rid of economic and transit dependency which has always caused suffering,” economic affairs analyst Abdul Wase Haidari told Afghan news service TOLO news.

"Through this route, commercial goods will be transported three to four days earlier than other transit routes and will also significantly reduce transportation cost of the goods," the Afghanistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said

The project is "strategically geared toward freeing Afghanistan from dependence on Pakistani, Iranian, and Russian ports," wrote RFE/RL Afghanistan analyst Abubakar Siddique. "Afghans accuse the three countries of fomenting or participating in various cycles of war in their country, beginning with the April 1978 communist coup and subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979."

At the signing, Georgian Foreign Minister Mikheil Janelidze didn't seem to think the corridor was quite that historic, praising only the general notion of transit corridors.

“The signing of the agreement will significantly contribute to the development of cooperation between the members of the project in the areas of trade and transport and beyond," Janelidze said. "We are convinced that an important part of the region’s future lies in new corridors and projects like Lapis Lazuli.”

There is, of course, a catch: the project is estimated to cost about $2 billion, and "financing needs to be sourced," as the project's organizers laconically put it. It will take advantage of existing infrastructure, including the just-finished Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and another railroad, inaugurated last year, connecting Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. 

"[M]ost of the needed infrastructure is already in place [and] most of the investment required will focus on improving policy and governance," according to the Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, which is spearheading the project. 

It remains to be seen, however, how enthusiastic investors will be to finance the project, given the dire security situation in Afghanistan. That has stymied other ambitious projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline and the United States's ill-fated New Silk Road. 

"While Kabul has invested some diplomatic effort in this initiative, it's still unclear whether multilateral institutions, or the states involved, are ready or able to invest in this project," Siddique wrote.

These sorts of projects "could contribute to dynamism in a revived region, but only if a peace process with the Taliban lessens the political risk of investment," wrote American Afghan expert Barnett Rubin, in a 2015 piece on Afghanistan's various connectivity hopes, including Lapis Lazuli. "It will not happen automatically or easily, but these projects provide incentives for cooperation."

Afghanistan Betting on Transit Corridor to Europe via Caucasus

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