By: M. Farshid Farhan
Afghanistan is a landlocked country which is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China from the east to north. In the last two decades Afghanistan has been importing around 85 percent of its consumer goods via Pakistan and Iran sea ports, but fortunately in the recent years Afghan government has been sought to open a regional economic and trade integration between Central Asia and south Asian countries, including Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India to find a new way and marketplaces to access open water. The main purpose of this policy for Afghan government and traders is to alleviating trade dependencies from southern and western neighbouring countries particularly Pakistan, due to political and trade controversial over the last years. In contrast, Lapis Lazuli route member countries have been less involved in Afghanistan’s political rivalries and tensions over the pasts, and at the same time the aforementioned countries having a goodwill relationship with the Islamic republic of Afghanistan so far.
The Lapis Lazuli Route was the Afghan government initiative, at the first time the idea of establishing this route was proposed by the ministry of foreign affairs of Afghanistan, and then the concept was warmly welcomed, agreed and signed by Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey in the 7th RECCA conference in 2017. Since Afghanistan does not access to sea ports, it’s optimistic for opening this strategic trade path to create economic integration among central Asian, southern Asia and European countries to act as land bridge to function as trade and transit hub to facilitate in addition to energy transmission also exchange goods, services and natural resources within the region and beyond, In particular in the midst of the Lapis Lazuli route member countries.
The Lapis Lazuli route officially was inaugurated in 13 December 2018 by president of Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Mr Ashraf Ghani, in Herat. Since opening this road almost fifteen Afghan consignment trucks departed from Herat- Torghondi port, towards Istanbul-Turkey.
This way is commencing from the Faryab-Aqenah and Herat-Torghondi ports through the Turkmenbashi port in Turkmenistan; and after passing the Caspian Sea to Baku Port, Azerbaijan, and then onward to Tbilisi, Georgia and finally reaching Istanbul. Based on independent organisation researches, Lapis Lazuli is one of the oldest Eurasian transit conduit, that the mentioned route is a historical road about two thousand years ago that purposefully was used to export the precious stones (azure) from Badakhshan to Central Asia, European, Mediterranean and Balkan countries, and for this reason route is called Lapis Lazuli.
Since Afghanistan does not have access to sea ports, in this regard to increase its exports and trades, it needs to seek out international markets, because for many decades there were trade disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan governments concerning transportation of shipments through Pakistan territory. Pakistan government have been imposing deliberately or unconsciously illegal taxes, extortions, detention and demurrages on Afghan consignments1. To remove these obstacles, the Afghan government searched to find other transit routes. In this respect Lapis Lazuli Route will be the best alternative conduit to connect Afghan merchandises to foreign markets such as Turkey and European Union and vice-versa. In particular, for Afghanistan the Lapis Lazuli has the following benefits;
First, the Lapis Lazuli route is the shortest, inexpensive and trustworthy to connecting Afghanistan markets to European markets, due to existence of railway from Herat to Turkmenbashi, then from Baku to Turkey.
Second, based on Lapis Lazuli route agreement no one member countries impose tariff or any other trade restrictions on Afghan goods, and all Afghan trucks can easily cross the deck without any obstacles between these five countries.
Third, Lapis Lazuli Route will reduce Afghanistan trade dependencies from Pakistan and Iran transportation paths and sea ports.
Fourth, the Lapis Lazuli Route is significant and innovative trading route in the region, by doing so; Afghanistan will get benefits.
As far as, Lapis Lazuli route benefits Afghanistan, about trade and transit, thus this road will provide opportunities for member countries as well, for instance, among these countries Turkmenistan is the fourth producer of gas in the world, to increase its economic growth rate this country needs to expand its trade volumes through this route. For example, Turkmenistan so far exports its gas only to China, Russia and Iran markets – in this respect the Lapis Lazuli route providing lots of benefits for the Turkmen gas exporting companies in the future. On the other hand, Azerbaijan and Georgia as well are looking to connect its economy via Black Sea to the European markets to liberate its economic dependencies from Russia. Additionally, Turkey is an emerging country in the region by opening of this conduit, it will promote and increase its export and ultimately access to the new markets.
Therefore, the main question arises here is that, to what extent this road will be beneficial for afghan government compare to Pakistani sea port? Based on assessment the movement of goods and commodities through the Pakistani port of Karachi to the border town of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan takes about 14 days, and the cost of transporting one truck will take more than US$ 5000. It will cost more than US$ 4000 from the 6,200-km route to Kazakhstan, and 2,200 km from the Turgundi border to the Turkish Kars and a little over US$ 3200. So it seems that the transportation cost is less than Pakistani port and Kazakhstani trade port. But, in term of elongation compare to these two countries, this route is less lengthy than Kazakhstan and more long than Karachi water port.
Through this way supposed to convey goods and commodities among the countries, but the big challenge will be existence of multiple2 railway junctions (units of railway tracks) from Pakistan, Iran and Asian countries to Afghanistan. For example, Afghanistan is currently facing three types of railway in the regional. European railway with a width of 143 cm coming from Iran, Russian railway with a width of 152 cm, English railway from Pakistan and India with a width of 167 cm. The gauge that entered Afghanistan from the north is the same width of 152 cm that is used in the countries travelling to Baku. So different railway gauges will hinder of connecting of European and southern and central Asia.
According to Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI), Afghanistan’s exports have been stopped due to not issuing visas for Afghan merchants by the Lapis Lazuli route member countries. Afghanistan ACCI claims that all Afghan traders have to process their customs invoices in each country; therefore, this will take time.
In the other side, another challenge for the Lapis Lazuli countries is, that all five countries totally are not member of the World Trade Organization. For instance, Afghanistan, Georgia and Turkey have the memberships, whilst Azerbaijan has so far been an observer and is striving to gain accession in the mentioned organisation, but Turkmenistan so far, has not yet submitted its application for accession to this organization, in this respect, it can be considered as one of the trade barriers on moving of goods between the countries. In additionally, it seems that, there are concerns about its impracticality, like lack of cooperation of Iran and Russia can, seriously challenge the project progresses due to regional political and economic rivalries.
In the other hand, due to lack of infrastructure in order to seize this opportunity, it will be the immense obstruction for Afghan traders and government, this is clear that lack of transportation roads, also destroyed roads inside Afghanistan are another obstacle for traders to take easily goods from the local markets to international markets for export and vice versa, in this case it is discouraging Afghan traders, to stopping it.
In the end, it can be concluded that after 3 years of the Lapis Lazuli inauguration, this route has not played a key role in the export, import and commercial facilities also after opening of this route not attracted the foreign investor to invest on Afghanistan untapped mines that the mines product should be export through this path, and moreover, it has not alleviated afghan trade dependencies either from Karachi sea ports or from Iran territory, thus still thousands of Afghan trucks have been stopped inside Pakistani territory for no reasons. In addition, the stopped trucks with its consignments are daily imposed extra taxes such as fines, detentions and demurrages due to political dispute among Pakistan and Afghan government, therefore it will be caused that, the perishable goods will be damaged and the level of prices especially the food and non-food prices increase in the Afghan local markets. In this regards for me, the best inexpensive and short route for Afghan traders to do trade is, Pakistan water ports, but Pakistan ought to respect, both countries vicinity and also alleviate political tensions, at the same time, as far as both countries are member of World Trade Organisation, so they have to follow WTO’s law and regulatory especially the trade facilitation agreement (TFA)to reduce trade dispute among themselves.