Afghanistan, The End of the Line: How Lack of Transportation Infrastructure Can Prevent Economic Development

Authors Jan Brecht-Clark and Rohullah Osmani discuss how a lack of transportation infrastructure--railroads, highways, and civil aviation--are limiting economic development in Afghanistan.

Jan Brecht-Clark and Rohullah Osmani

Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in Asia, offering few employment opportunities ultimately fostering corruption, generations of the discontented, and incentives for illegal ventures such as opium production.[1] Afghanistan is, however, rich in natural resources, including deposits of bauxite, beryllium, coal, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, nickel, salt, silver, sulfur, and tin as well as other precious and semi-precious minerals like amethyst, emerald, jade, lapis lazuli, ruby, and sapphires, and recently discovered oil and gas deposits. However, the bulk of the populace still depends on agriculture for a subsistence level of existence, even though only 12 percent of the country is considered arable.[2] Planes, trains, and roads are the lifeblood of commerce that could change this statistic, but Afghanistan is severely challenged in the areas of aviation and highways and is basically without rail resources. A lack of sectoral planning, including plans for the development, maintenance, and governance of a viable transportation infrastructure, has constrained the development of reserves, such as its massive oil and gas deposits and other resources. According to an Asian Development Bank sector assessment paper, the absence of an investment framework presents barriers to the funding of all development projects.[3]

Afghanistan’s highways, many constructed by international donors, are not fully connected and are deteriorating at an untenable rate. Aviation is limited because of lack of adherence to international standards and rail is nearly nonexistent, with Afghanistan currently having only seventy-five kilometers built by Uzbekistan but not effectively linked to profitable commercial ventures. Expansion of any transportation system and mining initiatives needed to tap their natural resources are further limited by antiquated approaches to determination of land ownership. Without improvements to Afghanistan’s transportation systems and land management approaches, there will be no economical way to transport large quantities of mined ore or finished products in any profitable way even if ownership disputes can be resolved. Afghanistan faces critical challenges that must be addressed soon or face insurmountable impediments to developing or resurrecting viable road, rail, and aviation transportation systems.

Railroads System
Railroads in developed countries, and in every one of Afghanistan’s neighbors, are key assets needed for the shipment of goods and products of high volume but lower value, like ore. Shipment of large amounts of ore products by truck is untenable and unprofitable and will not offer an avenue for growth and development from natural resources. Afghanistan has, however, historically resisted the development of rail, even that proposed by neighbors, perceiving it as a tool for invasion and dominance. During the push of Russia into the Caucasus and Central Asia in the 1800s, Russia constructed the Transcaspian Railway, linking the Caspian Seaport of Krasnovodsk to Tashkent, tying the Russian Central Asian military operations to a transportation system for swift military movement but also one that brought prosperity to the areas it linked.[4] Russia was reportedly preparing to expand rail to Herat and perhaps beyond but was ultimately thwarted. British India recognized the strategic advantage this rail line presented and argued with leadership in London for expansion of British railway into Afghanistan along with stationing of British troops in Jalalabad and Kandahar. The proposal was not supported because of cost and also hesitancy on the part of Afghanistan to allow the incursion of the British rail into their sovereign nation.[5] Unfortunately for Afghanistan, since rail was perceived predominantly as a tool for the military, expansion of all rail was actively resisted through most of Afghanistan’s history.

Now recognizing the benefit of rail to commerce, more recent rail development proposals have been moving forward, with seventy-five kilometers completed in 2013 as an extension of Uzbekistan rail to Mazar-e-Sharif and funded through an ADB grant.[6] This line carries goods into Afghanistan but little out, resulting in minimal economic growth for the country. Inclusion of rail was also a condition of mining tenders offered by the Ministry of Mines for the world-class deposits of copper in northern Afghanistan.[7] The challenges of building rail lines through mountainous terrain are costly to overcome so sharing the costs with international partners who will benefit from extracting the natural resources and who are most likely familiar with the development of rail systems was a wise decision. China won the copper deposit mining tender and submitted a proposed rail system outline but that proposal has not been finalized. China has recently requested to re-negotiate the previously agreed terms and conditions especially with regards to building a rail system. China proposes the use of a leaching system to extract deposits of copper. This would potentially result in higher concentrations of copper in the shipped product, which could make it more economical to transport by truck. This approach, however, also removes the possibility of Afghanistan being able to capitalize on the start of a rail system that would support other mining and agricultural development. China has not appeared to rigorously push to clear impediments to initiating their mining venture. Ownership of other copper mines may negate the need for them to move swiftly. It could be argued that significant productivity of the Afghan mine could impact international copper prices so slow and deliberate movement would actually be an advantage. While there are many challenges to the pursuit of the copper and other mining ventures, if rail is kept as a requirement of any offered tender, there are several decisions about rail that are critical to Afghanistan’s trade future that must be made.

The first decision is which rail gauge—the distance between the metal rails—should Afghanistan use. The three major rail gauges in the world are the Russian, British, and Standard gauge, used in China, Iran, the United States, Europe, South America, Australia, and much of Southeast Asia. There has been speculation that different gauges were developed to prevent suspect neighbors from being able to link to existing rail systems for easier invasion. Whatever the genesis of different gauges, Afghanistan is unique in the world in that it is surrounded by neighbors who use all three gauges. To the north (and for the current seventy-five kilometers of railway), the Russian gauge is used. Pakistan’s rail, initially constructed as part of the Indian rail system, uses the British gauge. Iran and China both use the Standard gauge. Since Afghanistan has no direct access to the sea for international shipment, determination of what gauge is used within Afghanistan will establish primary shipping and trading partners for cross-country transit and access to international markets. If the Standard gauge is used, linkage through Herat to Iran and ultimately to the Chabahar port would offer access for the northern oil, gas, and mineral deposits to international shipping assets. The recent agreement between India and Iran for the Chabahar Port to be operational by December 2016 will provide access to Afghanistan’s Garland Highway using the current Iranian road network and the Zaranj-Delaram road, which will establish direct road access to Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, and Mazar.[8] The Chabahar Port will provide the region with new trade routes stretching from the northern reaches of Central Asia down to Chabahar in southern Iran. Iranian rail offers connectivity near Herat, a potential starting point for rail development across northern Afghanistan. The port will be a station for global imports coming from the Gulf region, and a gateway to the Middle East and possibly Europe for exports coming from Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Selection of the Russian gauge would allow shipment through northern neighbors and potentially on to Europe but access to an international port would be long and expensive, perhaps requiring offloading for shipment across the Caspian Sea, reloading and further rail travel. Selection of the British gauge allows use of the Pakistan rail system, routed close enough to the southern border of Afghanistan to support reasonable linkage and connectivity to the ports of Gwadar and Karachi. While Pakistan’s rail system was previously considered deteriorated and unreliable, the Pakistan Minister of Railways, Khawaja Saad Rafique, said in June 2015 that Pakistan railways is now “out of intensive care”, citing a significant federal budget allocation to restart and improve service.[9] Linkage to the Pakistan rail system opens up port access as well as access to the Indian rail system and a potential significant regional market.

Regardless of which gauge is selected, decisions remain that must be made on how to connect to all neighbors for a regional and trans-continent shipping system that could benefit all of Central Asia. There are means of transfers across gauges but they require expensive terminals and capabilities. Afghanistan must insure they are not bearing this cost if and when they build their system. Whatever gauge they select and whatever neighbor they choose as their primary rail shipping partner, the development of a rail system is a major requirement for Afghanistan to reap natural resource based benefits.

Commerce and trade of lower volume and higher value goods can be supported with a solid highway system. Afghanistan’s distance to a seaport is more than two thousand kilometers, one of the longest national distances reported.[10] The country’s strategy to connect to other countries and a seaport was to build the 2,210 kilometer Ring Road, which connects South Asia, including India and Pakistan, and Iran to Central Asia, including Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, on a land route through Afghanistan. According to Afghanistan’s RECCA VI 2015 report, since 2001, the government and donors have built around 9,200 kilometers of road but, due to limited attention to road maintenance, about 85 percent of Afghanistan’s roads are in poor condition and a number of strategic road corridors have not been completed including the Ring Road which includes Highway One and connects sixteen of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces.[11] More than two-thirds of Afghans would live within thirty miles of the road when completed.[12]

Because roads built by the international community appeared to deteriorate at an unusually rapid rate, Afghanistan leadership questioned construction quality, but a major contributing factor lies with Afghanistan. The lack of a fully functioning national road maintenance system, overloaded and poorly maintained vehicles (especially trucks), and antiquated and unenforced highway use and load limit regulations are breaking down roads almost as quickly as they are constructed. In 2013, there were only two reported weigh stations in the nation, offering sporadic and inconsistent enforcement of weight limits. Federal Highway Administration materials note that an overloaded truck can cause as much as four times more wear and tear than normal on a highway. This is catastrophic when combined with poor maintenance.

Even if updated rules and regulations on road use and weight limits are promulgated, without enforcement, they will make no difference. Additionally, the current system of fees and fines for violations is cash based, opening collection to corruption and graft. Those fees, currently collected by Ministry of Transportation employees at border crossings and entrance routes to some cities, including several leading into Kabul, if collected consistently, electronically, and accurately could be a source of revenue for maintenance, the expansion of weigh stations, and enforcement resources. This would further increase revenue, reduce wear and tear, and allow even greater future fee usage on maintenance.

There is no simple solution to the roadway deterioration problem in Afghanistan, but if significant effort is not started soon, they will have an unusable highway system in a matter of years, if not decades. No amount of maintenance can keep up with the level of structural damage being caused by the current unabated abuse by overweight trucks and lack of maintenance. Solid weight and structural rules, regulations, and laws are needed with a concurrent nationwide enforcement mechanism. Trucks now offer the only commerce supporting transportation system for goods like agricultural products, cottage industries (such as Afghan rugs), etc. Deterioration of roads further limits trade options, especially for more remote areas and their inhabitants.

Civil Aviation
Afghanistan has four significant airports refurbished through international support: Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat. Limited international flights are allowed, especially out of Kabul, but full access to the international market is closed. This will be a limiting factor to economic growth. A full third of the global trade in high value, low volume goods is conducted by air. The worldwide employment, passenger carriage, and freight services from aviation supports $2.4 trillion dollars of the global GDP. Aviation is clearly an economic growth contributor but Afghanistan is not currently a fully vested participant in the global aviation arena.[13] Afghanistan was one of the original signatories of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1949.[14] ICAO works with member states to develop agreed upon Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) to insure consistency in safety, security, maintenance, and operation of airports and air carriers.

Afghanistan’s aviation system and industry was decimated during years of war. Its single national carrier, Ariana, was prohibited from international flights by the UN in 1998 as a part of sanctions on the Taliban and foreign carriers were prohibited from Afghanistan in 1999. The aviation system revenue stream was restricted to overflight fees, an inadequate source to maintain a fully functioning and ICAO compliant system.[15]

With the entry of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), international partners provided aviation management. Afghanistan revitalized Ariana and new carriers, SAFI and Kam Air, were launched. Unfortunately, because of the lack of updated regulations and the absence of an enforcing Civil Aviation Authority, the European Union and ultimately the United States and most other countries banned all flights to and from Afghanistan in 2010.[16] Safety and security were of particular concern. The United Arab Emirates, one country allowing flights, paid for contracted, ICAO compliant security until 2013, when Afghanistan assumed responsibility for the contracted services.

Aviation is a revenue generating system that can pay for itself if managed well. Overflight, ticket, landing and ground fees could pay for airport maintenance and security as well as government staff needed for services such as air traffic control, promulgation of regulations, security and safety inspection, etc. Prior to 2013, except for overflight fees, collection was on a cash basis, with inconsistency in application and unknown amounts being siphoned off. The United States assisted in development of an electronic fee payment system that, with initial implementation, looked as if it would result in millions of additional funds. Unfortunately, those funds are deposited into the general fund and are not limited to aviation use.

In 2013, the ISAF outlined plans to transition aviation responsibilities to the Afghan Government by late 2014.[17] While they have established a Civil Aviation Authority, Afghanistan has not developed their full capacity for aviation oversight. They have made headway but with a 2013 start, they are not at full operational capability level and will not be for several years (ICAO standards outline a 5-year program for development of a fully qualified safety inspector alone). This will require use of expensive contractual services. Any deterioration of the limited Afghan aviation system will further isolate this landlocked country and impede economic development.

Conclusion and Recommendations
Economic development in Afghanistan is critical to the basic health and wellbeing of its citizens and to the political stability of the country and region. Economic growth is dependent on trade and commerce which, in turn, is dependent on the ability to move goods and products to markets, especially international markets. If the current transportation assets of Afghanistan are not protected and expanded, substantial economic growth and development will be impossible. The highway and aviation transportation systems in Afghanistan were bolstered by international investment but that support has been diminished and will no longer be available at a level needed to fully maintain either system. They are deteriorating rapidly, and any delay in addressing maintenance needs adds costs at an exponential rate. Expansion is almost ill advised until they develop an ability to generate revenue and govern and maintain what they have. Rail is essentially non-existent and even the most basic decisions needed prior to significant development have not been made, such as which rail gauge to set for the nation’s standard. This decision alone will determine Afghanistan’s primary trading partner for natural resources for years to come. It is just the beginning of planning and decision making that has not been completed but must be done if a cohesive and optimally beneficial system is to be pursued.

Afghanistan has made some advances in increasing their transportation governance capability but a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for both highway construction, maintenance, and use and their aviation system are still sorely lacking and must be promulgated and supported along with solid enforcement. Development of even a small rail system that would link areas of mineral deposits with international shipping resources would open up markets, create job opportunities, and provide connectivity across the region. Key decisions must be made before any approval of any further rail construction is made, however, because linkage to neighboring systems will dictate trading partners for generations to come. Stopping the deterioration of Afghanistan’s current transportation system components and expansion in any area requires a commitment to actively manage transportation system assets through development and enforcement of laws and a solid investment of government time and funds. That investment will reap benefits across the nation that can ripple throughout the region.

 Dr. Jan Brecht-Clark is a former US Director for National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing. As a Senior Executive Service official for the US Department of Transportation, Dr. Brecht-Clark also served in the US Embassy in Kabul as Counselor for Transportation, and assisted the Afghan Government in the design and approval of civil aviation authority, and railroad authority. She has a PhD from the Ohio State University.

 Rohullah Osmani is a Visiting Scholar with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and a former Director General of Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Commission in Afghanistan. He has a Masters degree in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins University, SAIS.

[1] “Poorest Countries in Asia by GDP per Capita,” Asian Ranking,

[2] “Afghanistan Country Handbook,” DOD-2630-AFG-001-08, December 2007.

[3] “Sector Assessment (Summary): Energy,” Asian Development Bank,

[4] Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (New York: Kodansha International, 1990).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Andrew Grantham, Railways of Afghanistan,

[7] Ministry of Mines, “Government of Afghanistan, Anyak Tender Process History,”

[8] “Towards Regional Economic Growth & Stability: The Silk Road through Afghanistan,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, RECCA VI, (Kabul Afghanistan: September, 2015), 13.

[9] “Pakistan Railways ‘Out of Intensive Care,’” Railway Gazette, 26 June, 2015,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kevin Sieff, “After Billions in US Investment, Afghan Roads Are Falling Apart,” The Washington Post, January 30, 2014,

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Air Transport Action Group,” Aviation Benefits Beyond Borders,

[14] ICAO, “Afghanistan Civil Aviation Update,” (meetings, 2014).

[15] US Trade and Development Agency, “Afghanistan Civil Aviation Sector Definitional Mission study,” November 2002.

[16] Heidi Vogt, “Afghan airlines banned from Europe,” Bloomberg Business, November 2010,

[17] ICAO, “Afghanistan Civil Aviation Organization Update” (meeting, Bangkok, Thailand, May, 2013).


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