Uzbekistan resumes operations on Afghanistan railroad after dispute
Afghanistan receives about half its imports on a single track from Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan have signed an agreement on an Uzbek-operated railroad that runs on Afghan territory, allowing the full resumption of vital cargo and aid deliveries after a short hiatus.
That will come as a relief to Kabul, since the deal resolves a dispute over the railroad Afghanistan uses to receive around half of its imports and much of its humanitarian aid.
Uzbekistan Railways had halted traffic to Afghanistan over claims that the Afghans had not met commitments to carry out technical work on the route, which links the Afghan border town of Hairatan with the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
That link opened in 2011. It was built by Uzbekistan Railways, and is operated by its subsidiary, Sogdiana Trans.
In December, those two companies signed an action plan with the Afghanistan Railway Authority (ARA) on technical work to be completed inside Afghanistan by Afghan workers by February 1, Uzbekistan Railways said on January 31.
But owing to “the inability of the Afghanistan Railway Authority to implement the agreed measures on time,” it would be suspending all traffic from February 1.
Sogdiana Trans would meanwhile “provide practical assistance in carrying out cargo transportation to Afghanistan” by road and through the river port in the Uzbek border city of Termez, which is home to a key logistics center for aid delivery.
The suspension of traffic followed a row in December over an announcement by the ARA that it had signed a contract with a Kazakh company that it called Mansour Fatih to replace Sogdiana Trans as the line’s operator.
The company would receive just over $4 million annually to service 106 kilometers of track, Bakht Rahman Sharafat, the ARA’s acting head, told Afghan news agency TOLO News.
That was nearly four times cheaper than the $15 million it had been paying to Sogdiana Trans to service 22 kilometers of track, he said. (Earlier reports said the ARA was paying $18 million per year.)
That followed reports in the Afghan media last year that the ARA was considering taking over the operation of the track itself.
Uzbekistan Railways hit back at the reports that a Kazakh company which it called “Mansor Fateh” had replaced it as operator. Complaining of “distorted information” in the Afghan media, it said talks were under way with the ARA.
Internet searches for Kazakh companies by the name of Mansour Fatih and Mansor Fateh showed up no results of firms with experience in railway track management. A search on a non-official Kazakh website that tracks tenders also brought up zero results.
On February 4, three days after the suspension of operations, Uzbekistan Railways accused the ARA of failing to meet commitments to carry out work at Hairatan railway station that it said the Afghans had contracted to the Kazakh company.
However, the dispute is now resolved.
On February 12 Sogdiana Trans signed an agreement with the ARA to continue operating the track for two years, Uzbekistan Railways said.
It did not specify what had been agreed about the technical work or the role of the mysterious Kazakh company.
The sides agreed to expedite the dispatch of cargo after the delays. Some deliveries resumed earlier, with 714 carriages of goods arriving on February 10 and 11.
Deliveries of cargo and aid via the railroad from the Uzbek border are a lifeline for the Taliban government, which is under international sanctions, and the Afghan people.
Hairatan is the gateway for about half of Afghanistan’s imports, according to the Asian Development Bank, including staples such as rice, flour and cooking oil.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
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