Afghanistan provides access to trade along north-south and east-west corridors through Central Asia. Three of six corridors for the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Program, which supports investments in roads, energy, and trade traverse Afghanistan. Roads and rail links connect Afghanistan to Asia’s four different regions. Transport sector investments increase the impact of other sectors in Afghanistan, namely, energy and agriculture, by linking markets, products, and people. The development of road and rail infrastructure is crucial for supporting mine extraction industries and using the mineral wealth of the country to spur economic development. This overview examines Afghanistan’s transportation network from both economic and security standpoints, and observes a post-Islamic Republic Afghanistan, now under the care of the Islamic Emirate (IEA). It is noteworthy that the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the US’s Department of State advise against all travel to Afghanistan due to the volatile security situation and unreliable border crossings.
Transport sector overview
Afghanistan’s transportation system is comprised of inland waterways, air, rail, and road transport modes. Inland waterways are limited to the Amu Darya and its tributaries with the only formal operating inland port at Shirkhan Bandar. There are some 60 airports and airfields spread across the country including two international and 22 domestic airports, which previously met International Civil Aviation Organization class 4 categorization standards. Desp≠≠ite transportation links progress resulting largely from infrastructure interventions, the transport network remains incomplete. With respect to private sector participation in transport sector development, the security of contractors and consultants on remote project sites remains problematic. Most transactions fail to attract the interest of top-quality consultants and contractors, largely due to the security situation and lack of additional margin or profit incentive to offset perceived additional risk. Throughout previous administrations, this has led to a lack of competition, higher-than-expected bid prices and financing gaps, and low-quality products from service providers. Stakeholder consultation, especially with local communities, has been inadequate. The result is that some have not “bought into” the projects or welcomed foreign contractors; a problem the new administration may police in an alternative manner to previous administrations. This issue is undoubtedly compounding existing problems at international border and port entry points in Afghanistan.
The Shah Abu Nasr Farahi port has recently, for the first time, been used to transit goods from Iran and other Asian countries. The first transit trucks carrying goods from Indonesia and Malaysia entered Afghanistan through Iran.
Land: Rail and Road
Until the last decade, the total length of railways was a mere 24.6km, comprising cross-border extensions from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to transshipment yards in Towraghondi and Kheyrabad. In the last decade, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) financed Hairatan to Mazar-e-Sharif rail link (75km) was completed; the first new railway in Afghanistan in over 100 years. Rail services at Hairatan average 4-5 trains typically comprising 30 wagons each, hauling humanitarian aid and bulk commodities, particularly fuel.
Roads are the principal means of transport in Afghanistan which has a road network comprising of approximately 3,300km of regional highways, 4,900km of national highways, 9,700km of provincial roads, 17,000–23,000km of rural roads, and about 3,000km of urban roads, including 1,060km in Kabul. In 2014, the ADB reported Afghanistan’s road networks were at an estimated density of only 4km per 1000km2, a density far below the completeness levels achieved by its neighbours. Furthermore only 7% of the roads are paved. The regional highway network consists of the 2,300km Ring Road connecting Afghanistan’s major regional centers (Herat, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Maimana, and Sheberghan) with Kabul, and about 700km of cross-border roads linking the Ring Road to neighboring countries, contributing to economic growth and national integration. Demand for road transport is increasing evidenced by the supply of registered vehicles. The vehicle population is increasing rapidly with an annual average growth of 23% for cars, 15% for trucks, and 48% for motorcycles.
The air sector is arguably the most important sector currently as the IEA vie for international recognition and external support. The Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (MoTCA) signed a contract for aviation security services for four Afghan airports – Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, and Herat – with the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) GAAC company. The UAE will restart issuing visas to Afghans as part of the deal. The contract agrees that the UAE company will recruit former employees of the MoTCA. The GAAC company is tasked with the security screening of passengers and ground services. On 27 May 22, the first air cargo flight arrived in Kabul following the UAE deal. The following week, former head of MoTCA, Hassan Mubarak Azizi, returned to Afghanistan from Turkey as part of the IEA’s efforts to repatriate exiled professionals.
In early June 22, Afghan airlines Ariana and Kam Air decided to resume operations to Islamabad by expressing interest to do so to the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA). The PCAA confirmed permissions will be granted once PCAA requirements are fulfilled. At present, Pakistan International Airlines operates chartered flights between Kabul and Islamabad, reportedly charging $1,300 per passenger. The IEA reported Kabul’s airport is now operational thanks to the technical support provided by Qatar, with Kam Air flights from Istanbul to Kabul also operational with tickets reportedly costing circa $480 (US) each way.
Multiple reports circulated in the media recently over the serviceability of aviation radar systems in Afghanistan, prompting Afghan air operations to Asia and Europe to be directed and handled from Lahore, Karachi, and Islamabad until 20 August 22. Referring to the issues, MoTCA dismissed reports that Pakistan has access to Afghanistan’s airspace due to “unsolved technical issues” claiming it is common in international aviation to have cooperation with neighbouring states. The IEA claimed their aviation radar systems remain active with circa thirty passenger airplanes transiting Afghanistan daily, with a further 50 to 80 flights using Afghan airspace. MoTCA asserts it collects a 250 million afghanis in monthly revenues from domestic flights and $700 (US) for each flight using Afghan airspace.
The most efficient way to examine borders under the current administration is to observe the Pakistani border, the Iranian border, and the Central Asian borders, with Turkmenistan as an exception, individually. The IEA is beset on all sides by difficult borders and the group’s inability to bring them under control may serve to complicate relations with regional neighbours.
Pakistan announced it will open two new border crossings to accommodate the volume of Afghan exports to Pakistan. The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) pressed Islamabad on the requirement to improve the infrastructure at five border crossings, stressing that trade between Kabul and Islamabad had reduced compared to past years. Relations strained recently due to ongoing disputes between Pakistan and the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) group, and Pakistan’s intentions to erect fencing along the Durand Line, a notion Afghans for generations have been opposed to. Pakistan continues to launch military strikes into Afghan territory to target anti-Pakistan militant groups; Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost, Kandahar and Helmand have all reported such activities. However, Pakistan did demonstrate compassion towards Afghanistan under Imran Khan’s administration by striking a humanitarian deal with India to facilitate the delivery of Indian wheat to Afghanistan through the Torkham border. Pakistan also agreed to permit road convoys of evacuees as late as March 22 following the cancellation of US evacuation flights to Qatar on 1 December 21. The IEA, however, are releasing frequent reports of interdictions of illicit smuggling of abandoned NATO weaponry, precious metals and minerals, and illegal crops into Pakistan via porous land borders.
At the Iran border, the IEA face a less ideologically aligned government. Considering recent tensions, Iran has increased its military presence along the border. In late April 22, the Islam Qala border crossing between Afghanistan and Iran was closed following a dispute between IEA and Iranian border guards, reportedly over a road the IEA intended to build. The border reopened a day later but tensions remain. Since then, the National Standards Authority returned twelve tankers to Iran for carrying low-quality imported oil. IEA officials in Nimroz province stated low-quality oil was not permitted to be introduced to Afghan markets.
Central Asian states
Central Asian states view the IEA as the only option for preventing ISKP from fulfilling its regional ambitions and for achieving the kind of stability necessary for economic prosperity. These states are likely to maintain a calm and diplomatic approach to their borders with Afghanistan. Following assistance calls to Russia, the northern states, especially Tajikistan, maintain a Russian security presence at border crossing points and vulnerable areas. Concerns deepened in April 22 when Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), fired 10 rockets at an Uzbek military base in Termez, and an undetermined number of rockets from Takhar’s Khawaja Ghar district toward unspecified military targets in Tajikistan. This, coupled with increased hostilities between the IEA’s security forces and domestic Afghan resistance forces in Takhar and Badakhshan, the Tajik border guard increased its alert posture.