Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tajikistan: Border Bridge to Boost Economy

Big increase in movement of goods between Tajikistan and Afghanistan envisaged once new frontier link complete.
By Lidia Isamova

A new bridge across the Afghan border promises to solve the problem of the Tajik “transport deadlock” by opening a direct trade route to the Indian Ocean.

The structure’s foundation stone was laid at a ceremony on June 18 attended by Tajik and Afghan presidents Emomali Rakhmonov and Hamid Karzai, and US ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland.

Rakhmonov described the new bridge over the Pyanj river - due to be completed in 2007 - as “a great bridge of friendship” which would be “the fruit of cooperation between Afghanistan and Tajikistan”, and expressed hopes that it would enable increased economic stability.

“The bridge will give a new stimulus to both bilateral and regional cooperation, will expand border trade, and will provide a permanent road link between two countries,” he said. “It will also join up several regions, helping a revival of the Great Silk Road. The bridge will help to make our countries transit countries, and will play a major role in the economic recovery of Afghanistan.”

During the ceremony at the Nizhni-Pyanj border crossing, Hoagland read out a letter of congratulation from US president George Bush to Rakhmonov, in which the American leader anticipated a new era of increased Tajik-Afghan collaboration.

“This bridge will significantly increase the economic and commercial capabilities of both countries, and allow goods and people to move more freely. The bridge does not just symbolise the historic ties between the two countries, but also international cooperation, which is now possible in the region,” Bush wrote.

Political analyst Rashid Abdullo insisted that Tajikstan had most to gain from the new structure. “So far, the bridge only has political significance for Tajikistan, and its construction is a continuation of President Rakhmonov’s deliberate policy of ‘building bridges’ with southern neighbours. He believes that he is opening new possibilities for communication for Tajikistan and reducing the transport dependency on Uzbekistan,” he said.

Analyst Tursun Kabirov was similarly enthusiastic about the potential advantages for the Tajiks. “This has important geopolitical and economic implications for Tajikistan. The opening of a southern transit corridor will provide an outlet to the Indian Ocean, thereby ending many years of isolation. The bridge will help to increase deliveries of electricity from Tajikistan to northern Afghanistan,” he said.

However, none of these anticipated benefits will be evident until construction of the bridge is completed in two years’ time. The building work will cost 28,352,000 US dollars and is to be funded primarily by the US, with big contributions from Japan and Norway. Italian company Rizzani De Eccher will build the structure under the supervision of the American Military Engineering Corps.

Tajiks close to the border have given the development a mixed reaction.

Some welcome easier access with neighbouring Afghanistan. Maisara, a teacher at a regional school, told IWPR, “I’m happy that our peoples will be able to move freely and make contact with one another. I have relatives who fled to Afghanistan during the Tajik civil war, and I would like to see them more often.”

But there are those who are suspicious of the prominent US involvement in the scheme.

“The Americans don’t do anything just for the sake of it, they have kept their soldiers in Afghanistan for four years, and now that the Russian border guards have left, they probably want to have a base here. I don’t know, maybe this will be good for Tajikistan, there will be jobs for local residents and the roads will be repaired, but somehow I’m not happy about having foreign soldiers here,” said Dusti, a resident of a nearby village.

President Rakhmonov, however, appears to welcome US support, saying it was the duty of the international community to help to raise the living standards of people in the region and create new jobs for them.

One political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous, suggested that the US-funded bridge would also provide some sort of guarantee of continued American military engagement in Afghanistan – something the country’s president is keen to secure for the short-term at least.

“Karzai feels safe as long as anti-terrorist coalition troops are on the territory of Afghanistan. As soon as they leave, the situation in Afghanistan will destabilised,” he said.

Lidiya Isamova IWPR project director in Dushanbe.

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