Kabul has begun construction of a $5 million road in the Pamir Mountainous Region or “Roof of the World” to connect with China through a land route for the first time, inching closer to realizing Beijing’s “huge interest” in investing in Afghanistan, a government official said on Sunday.
Building the nearly 50 km highway that runs through the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan’s northeastern Badakhshan Province will take a year and a half to complete and, once ready, will allow Beijing to export raw materials from untapped Afghan mines for its increasing domestic consumption.
“We have brought some machinery from Tajikistan for the project because the terrain did not allow us to send them from this side,” Khalil Rahman Omaid, a Spokesman for the Public Works Ministry, said.
The project’s initial phase will include graveling and adding asphalt before “connecting it with a road already in use in China.”
“This route will be used for commerce, imports and export as well as transit. China has expressed a huge interest for investment in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sector, and this road will be good for that too,” Omaid added.
Kabul’s government will pay the cost of the project, estimated to be nearly $5 million, with a part of the route expected to traverse the Silk Road used by China for trade with South Asia, Iran and Europe through Afghanistan and Central Asia in ancient times, the spokesman said.
“We can say it revives the idea of the Silk Road under China’s Modern Belt & Road Initiative Project,” Torek Farhadi, an adviser for the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, said.
He added that it was “no secret” that Afghanistan’s minerals and rare earth reserves were “coveted by China.”
“China has geostrategic interests in Afghanistan, as well as geo-economic ones. At the same time, Wakhan does benefit from easy road access from inside Afghanistan,” Farhadi said.
Both Kabul and Beijing have stepped up their efforts to improve economic and trade ties in the past few years.
More than a year ago, Kabul inked a $2.2 billion deal to export its coveted pine-nuts to China over the next five years, while Afghanistan is already a huge market for Chinese goods.
Additionally, during the past 20 years, China has progressively increased its presence in Afghanistan, extending nearly $240 million in development aid between 2001 and 2013 and ramping up investments in the country, especially since the reduction of US-led troops began in late 2014.
In 2007, with the signing of a deal with the Afghan government, China won exclusive rights to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine in the Logar province for $3.4 billion.
Under the contract, China will be building a railway network to export the copper from Logar located to the south of Kabul to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif and back to Beijing through an existing rail network in Uzbekistan.
However, the ambitious project has yet to see the light of day due to delays in copper extraction, slowed by the war in Afghanistan and the discovery of an ancient historical Buddhist site.
“Chinese officials, in various meetings here and in China, have not had any specific pledges on the construction of the railway project . . . partly because China wants to wait to see the return of peace (to Afghanistan) before it makes any move for investment more here,” a senior Afghan government official, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the matter, said.
Decades of war have deterred China from backing several infrastructure development projects in Afghanistan, unlike its Belt & Road Initiative, which Beijing launched in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries, including in neighboring Pakistan.
China has remained critical and skeptical of the US military’s presence in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s ousting in a Washington-led invasion in late 2001.
Last week, Beijing offered to host peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, with the US kickstarting its troops’ withdrawal process from Afghanistan on May 1. All foreign forces are expected to leave the country by Sept. 11.
When asked to elaborate on Beijing’s offer to host the talks, its foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Tuesday that “China is ready to facilitate intra-Afghan talks and will provide necessary conditions for negotiations in China.”
Experts said that China’s move was to foster “stability” in Afghanistan.
“China, more than any other countries of the world, wants stability in Afghanistan for its security and investment here. It has been trying to communicate with Afghan leaders that peace is vital for the development of Afghanistan too,” Taj Mohammad, a Kabul-based analyst, said.