Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have laid the foundation stone of a U.S.-funded bridge that will cross their countries' river border. But the bridge over the Pyandzh River is more than just a link between the two countries. It is part of an ambitious regional transportation plan to link the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to an Iranian port in the Persian Gulf and Pakistan's port city of Karachi.
Prague, 19 June 2005 (RFE/RL) - Both presidents had lofty proclamations when they laid the foundation stone on 18 June for a U.S.-funded bridge across their border on the Pyandzh River.
Like his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov said the structure would be more than just a bridge. It was, he said, a first step in building a major regional network of transportation and infrastructure links.
"In the future we will lay electricity, gas and water lines through this bridge. We also hope that next to this bridge will be built another bridge designed for the Dushanbe-Kurghonteppa-Kunduz railway," Rakhmonov said. "With the construction of this bridge and the repair of transport roads in northern Afghanistan, our country will benefit from the shortest possible access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. That will not only have a big impact on Tajikistan's economy and communications, it will also have a big political and geostrategic importance for our country."
The U.S.-funded bridge, measuring 670 meters in length, is expected to cost $29 million. It will be built by an Italian contractor under American supervision. Construction is expected to get seriously under way when the river's water level lowers in the autumn. It is expected to take two years to complete.
At yesterday's ceremony, Karzai said the bridge will benefit the whole region in terms of trade and transport. That point was echoed by Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.
"When this bridge is completed, when other infrastructure projects are completed in Afghanistan that will assist in restoring Afghanistan's historic role as a bridge between Central Asia and South Asia, trade and economic interaction as well as people to people contact between these two important regions will be enhanced," Khalilzad said.
In recent weeks, Karzai has made it clear that Afghanistan hopes to become a regional trade hub through transit routes that link ports in Pakistan and Iran with Central Asia. In a visit to Washington in late May, Karzai said roads are a key part of those plans.
"Afghanistan wants to be the hub of trade and transit in that part of the world. Afghanistan's highways and roads will [shorten] journeys by weeks for that part of the world," Karzai said. "The journey from Tashkent [Uzbekistan] to [Pakistan's] port of Karachi will be less than 32 hours -- for cargo, for transportation of goods. The same will be to [the Iranian port city of] Bandar-Abbas. And that is the future we are seeking."
Meanwhile, Rakhmonov also pledged yesterday that Tajikistan would supply Afghanistan with electricity at prices lower than any other country in the region, and help rebuild Afghanistan's energy sector.
Afghanistan currently produces enough electricity for about six percent of its population. But Karzai has said his country has the potential to produce much more by using hydroelectric dams, wind power, and untapped coal resources.
Karzai on Saturday also reiterated Afghanistan's pledge to eradicate opium poppy farming. Both Karzai and Rakhmonov also vowed to improve coordination in combating extremism, terrorism, and drug smuggling.
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