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Afghan rail plan among proposals for donors

KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- Among the urgent projects Kabul's new leaders are presenting to donor countries in Tokyo this week is a dream more than a century old to build a railway across mountainous Afghanistan.

The roots of the issue stretch back to the "Great Game" era of the late 1800s when Russia and British India laid tracks up to Afghanistan's borders but Kabul refused to allow these potential invasion routes into its remote territory.

Now that decades of war and poverty have shown what that splendid isolation can bring, the new Afghanistan is desperately seeking closer ties to the outside world so it can finally reap the benefits of international cooperation.

"The world is coming together now and we want to be part of this world," Abdul Salam, deputy planning minister in the new interim government, told Reuters while explaining the plan.

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While it may seem only an agenda item in Tokyo, the railway plan reflects the struggle between tradition and modernity that has long stymied economic development in Afghanistan.

What makes it urgent now is the realization that the failure to modernize Afghanistan helped lead to anarchy and the takeover by the Taliban and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

Kabul and its backers are seeking ways to avoid repeating that mistake.

Port links

The railway plan, last drawn up in the mid-1970s but shelved after the communist coup of 1978, would link landlocked Afghanistan to the two main ports it uses -- Iran's Bandar Abbas on the Gulf and Pakistan's Arabian Sea port of Karachi.

The route would run from the Iranian border to the western city of Herat, across flat southern Afghanistan to Kandahar and then north into the mountains, past the Logar province copper mines, to Kabul.

A spur line would lead to iron ore mines in the rugged mountains near Bamiyan northwest of Kabul.

A line branching south from Kandahar would run to the Pakistani border town of Chaman, where it would link up to the British-built network that ruler Amir Abdul Rehman in the 1880s called "a knife pushed into my vitals."

Abdur Rehman, who forged the modern Afghan state between 1880 and 1901, barred trains and telegraph lines as Trojan horses of the encroaching Russian and British empires.

"As long as Afghanistan has not arms enough to fight against any great attacking power, it would be folly to allow railways to be laid throughout the country," he declared.

After his death, modernizers began pressing for a railway.


To placate skeptics, one even wrote a manual for the Afghan army on how to destroy the tracks if an invasion loomed.

But it was not until his grandson Amanullah assumed the throne in 1919 that modern ideas won official support.

The reformist king introduced radio and telephones and tried to stop women in the Muslim country from wearing the veil.

On his 1927 tour of Europe, he bought three small steam locomotives and coaches from the Henschel company in Kassel, Germany.

He had the railway set up between the center of Kabul and the new capital Darulaman he was building outside the city.

Commuter line

The seven-km (four mile) narrow-gauge line, more like an amusement park ride than a working railway, carried commuters for several years before falling into disuse, another of the failed reforms Amanullah attempted before being overthrown in 1929.

The plan went into the deep freeze for decades, re-emerging in 1976 in Prime Minister Daoud Khan's seven-year plan.

The cost of the 1,810 km (1,100 mile) line was estimated then at $120 million.

"We can't say what it would cost now because we haven't done an up-to-date feasibility study yet," Salam said.

The three locomotives are now rusting hulks in the garden of the Kabul Museum, better known for its precious Buddhist-era statues which the extremist Taliban smashed last year.

"These are historical artefacts and we want to keep them," museum caretaker Omara Khan Masoudi said.

"Of course, it would be good to have a real railway now, that would be progress."


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