New bridge to provide key economic link

Efforts to boost the economies of both Tajikistan and Afghanistan moved one step further on Saturday, when Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov and Afghan President Hamid Karzai laid the foundation stone for a US-funded bridge across the Pyanzh River.

"The Nizhiniy Pyanzh bridge will unlock the economic vitality of the two countries through expanded trade opportunities, advance Tajik-Afghan efforts to combat international terrorism and weapons and drug trafficking, and improve international cooperation in the region," US Ambassador to Tajikistan, Richard Hoagland, told IRIN from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Once completed in 2007, more than 1,000 cars and trucks are expected to cross daily to take goods between the two countries.

"At the moment, only one bridge, between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, links the goods of South Asia to Central Asia," Hoagland explained, noting the economic potential to the region, reminiscent of the Great Silk Road and trade network that connected East Asia with Europe and beyond.

The bridge is 672 metres long by 11.5 metres wide and built to international seismic standards. It will link the border crossing town of Nizhniy Pyanj, Tajikistan, with the town of Shir Khan in Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province.

"In many ways, the future of both Tajikistan and Afghanistan are linked, from hydroelectricity and the trade of goods and services, to cultural and social cooperation. Those few metres of roadway should open up a world of change," the Ambassador said.

That's precisely what the presidents of both countries are expecting, with both leaders having high hopes for the future.

"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," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RE) quoted Tajik President Rakhmonov as saying.

Speaking at the ceremony, his Afghan counterpart agreed, stressing the regional impact the bridge would have both in terms of trade and transport. In recent weeks, Karzai has made it clear that his country hoped to become a regional trade hub through transit routes linking ports in Pakistan and Iran with Central Asia. In a visit to Washington in late May, Karzai said roads were 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 stated. "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."

Washington provided over US $28 million for the project, along with several other major funders including Norway, which provided $900,000 towards the construction. Japan is paying for the completion of the highway which will connect the bridge with Dusti, a central town in the Qumsangir District in which both (Nizhniy Pyanj and Sher Khan) are located about 20 km from Nizhniy Pyanzh.

On the Afghan side, the bridge will connect to the Afghan Ring Road, a primary arterial road linking almost all of Afghanistan's principle cities and is the main route from the Nizhniy Pyanzh Bridge to the Afghan capital, Kabul, via Kunduz.

There are five official border crossings along the 1,206 km Tajik/Afghan frontier, located at Ishkashim, Ruzvai (Darvaz), Tem (Khorog), Kokul Parkhar), and Nizhniy Pyanzh. Nizhniy Pyanzh will be the first international highway route since all the others are crossings are more akin to footbridges with limited capacity to handle large commercial or automotive volume.