The itty-bitty, $54 billion railroad network needed to export Afghanistan’s mineral wealth

October 5, 2012
October 5, 2012

The Afghanistan government has staked much hope on the country’s future as an exporter of metals, minerals, and fossil fuels. Afghanistan’s metals and minerals alone are said to be worth some $1 trillion, and the government has forecast that, by 2020, mining will bring it $500 million a year in taxes. The World Bank has been even more bullish: a 2010 report projected that Afghanistan could be collecting that sum by 2017, and that the industry could be employing 90,000 people.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Pentagon have touted the extractive industries as part of their “New Silk Road” strategy, intended to help bring peace to the country by invigorating the economy of the entire region. Some observers, including me, have been skeptical about the Silk Road project because of its size and complexity in an unstable and primitive landscape, but US diplomats continue to express optimism.

Now, a new study casts doubt on a key component of both the mining and Silk Road ideas. The problem is the railroad system required to transport the commodities from mines and out of the country, according to the private report, conducted for the Pentagon and reviewed in draft by The Wall Street Journal (paywall). The report proposes a 2,260-mile national railroad network, including tunnels and bridges, but goes on to say that it could cost more than $54 billion, a sum so large that it could render some of the mining projects uneconomical. Here is a map of the proposed railroad network, published by the Journal:

The Pentagon report will not be the end of the story. Some mining and oil-exploration is bound to proceed. But the report illustrates the scale of the obstacles that stand in the way of the grand, face-saving system promoted by Clinton two years before US troops withdraw from the country.

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