The idea of linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan by rail appears to have wheels once more, following reports earlier this year that the project was running short of steam.
Back in January, Turkmenistan went cold on the estimated $2 billion link, slated to be part financed by the Asian Development Bank. Ashgabat faulted Afghanistan and Tajikistan for not keeping the Turkmen leadership in the loop with regard to the route the railroad would follow. As EurasiaNet.org reported:
On January 29, the head of state-owned Tajik Railways, Amonullo Khukumatullo, announced that Dushanbe and Kabul had themselves decided on the route for the Afghan section of the rail. The announcement apparently caught Ashgabat by surprise because on January 31, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry protested that Khukumatullo’s declaration was "tendentious and absolutely unacceptable" and "counterproductive."
Few believed Ashgabat’s bluster was only about the route. Luca Anceschi of the University of Glasgow told EurasiaNet.org then that "participating in pretty much every initiative that goes on, while maintaining a non-committal attitude, and withdrawing when more convenient" was a very Turkmen approach to regional cooperation. Anceschi cited the protracted Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TAPI) negotiations and stalled talks over a separate railroad to connect Iran and Kazakhstan via Turkmenistan as examples.
Moreover, it is unclear how much Turkmenistan would have to gain in the short-term from a proposed 400-kilometer railroad connecting it to economically depressed Tajikistan through a country that Central Asian states regularly characterize as chronically unstable. Ashgabat would also have to front its own part of the track and a small section of the line running through Afghanistan.
All of this makes a July 19 report by pro-government Turkmenbusiness.org that a route for the railroad “had been determined” notable:
Currently the Turkmen side is familiar with the project route and the president has given his agreement. All that remains is to agree on the project with the respective departments of transport. The document will be signed after the SCO summit in Dushanbe, which will be at the end of this month.
In comments picked up by Tajik media the day before, Tajikistan’s Transport Minister, Hayrullo Asozoda, also suggested a deal was close.
For isolated Tajikistan, the track is crucial as neighbor Uzbekistan gradually cuts its rail connections with the outside world. While Turkmenistan and Tajikistan do not share a common border, ties have warmed considerably on the back of billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment in Ashgabat’s energy sector: Line D, the fourth in a quartet of pipelines China is threading through the region from Turkmenistan’s gas fields, will transit Tajikistan when construction starts later this year, earning the regime of President Emomali Rakhmon some easy cash.