From Aid to Trade in Afghanistan: How the U.S. Military is Helping Develop Rail

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(Matt Dellinger - Transportation Nation) Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan might involve building roads and rail. That's the idea behind the Silk Road Initiative, an effort that the American military is leading to improve infrastructure and stimulate trade in the region.

Colonel Ted Hodgson, who is on staff at US Central Command, is a member of the Afghan Future Working group, which formed about a year ago. Colonel Hodgson (who appeared this morning on The Takeaway) rattles off a number of telling statistics: only 7% or the roads in Afghanistan are paved; about 90% of crops there rot before they make it to market; the country is rich in coal and mineral deposits, but without rail those resources are virtually moot. Last summer, a 75-kilometer rail line opened from the country's northern border to the city of Mazar-e-Sharif—the first rail line in the nation's history—but more track is needed, and the Afghanis need training on how to operate and maintain a railroad.

December 5, 2010: A train rests on the new track built from the border of Uzbekistan to just beyond Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan. The new track is more than 75 kms long and provides Afghan traders the means of importing and exporting goods. (Photo by Army Sgt. Michael Reinsch, IJC Public Affairs)

CENTCOM's belief is that stimulating economic activity is crucial to creating stability and relative piece in Afghanistan, according to Colonel Hodgson. The Silk Road Initiative, he says, is very much in keeping with the doctrine of Counterinsurgency and has been encouraged by General David Petraeus. But the American military isn't going to do the building, Hodgson says. He came to New York to present the rail plan (and a map of mineral resources) to representatives of international banks, construction companies, and governmental transportation agencies at a conference sponsored by the global infrustructure consultancy CG/LA.

Here is a full transcript of our conversation:

Matt Dellinger: Could you describe the work you're doing in Afghanistan, and under what auspices?

Colonel Ted Hodgson: I'm part of the Afghan Future Working Group that we formed about a year ago. There were several of us that were looking at transportation, commerce, and trade issues regarding Afghanistan and trying to help them develop economically. I’m the deputy mobility chief there, and so I was working on the specific transportation issues. And Afghanistan just recently had a rail line, about 75 km rail line, built into their country. The first time they’ve ever had rail in their history. So we were looking at that and trying to help them—where do they go next with their rail, because it’s just one little line.

Dellinger: Who built that?

Colonel Hodgson: It was funded by Asian Development Bank.  And we ended up having the Uzbekistan rail company built that rail line for them, funded by ADB. So we began looking at where do we go for the future as far as this rail and road transportation infrastructure development. And then we started looking at where do we go economically for the future of Afghanistan. So as we began developing the program, some wonderful opportunities came up, such as the revelation—mining deposits. Huge, vast amounts of iron ore, copper, gold, and other mine deposits. So really Afghanistan, we come to find out, is sitting on I believe it’s about 300 billion dollars worth of mineral deposits. It’s a vast amount that makes a country very rich if we can find a way to export it to the market.

So we’ve been working with some other folks and developing future infrastructure for them. Rail infrastructure particularly. And where do we want to go and what would be a recommendation to others about] how this rail line should be built and where at. Of course Afghanistan is very challenging, because rail is very difficult. It has to be –you don’t want it to be more than 2% grade.  And Afghanistan unfortunately—a lot of mountains, a lot of peaks, lots of streams and creeks. But the big thing is we’re trying to get these iron ore deposits and these copper mine deposits out to the market. Come to find out India, Japan, and China are three of the biggest importers for those products. So the opportunity is to get a rail line built that can help Afghanistan go from an aid-dependent country to a truly trade exporter. So we’re focusing on those areas in particular.

And we’re also focusing on just the commerce and trade procedures. Because just like back in the US many, many years ago we had interstate commerce laws and regulations developed. So that’s another big project we’re trying to work on, so that the countries will work together, have common export-import-commerce-trade procedures and processes, so that they call can begin effectively trading with each other. Now, as we were going into this program we started looking at it from a regional approach, because we realized no matter what we do for Afghanistan—we can build all the rail line in the world for Afghanistan, but if we don’t have a viable way for Afghanistan to get it out to the ocean or another way, it’s not going to do any good. So we’ve been looking at it from a regional perspective. Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan—how do you develop the entire region from a transportation infrastructure? And that’s our big goal, is developing their transportation infrastructure and then also developing their commerce and trade.

Dellinger: You mentioned this group getting together a year ago? Was there a transportation strategy element to American involvement in Afghanistan before that?

Colonel Hodgson: There were various strategies, I would say. There wasn’t really a coordinated effort, I don’t think. You know, a big effort has been toward building the ring road in Afghanistan, which is a road that goes around the entire country there. But it wasn’t just us. It’s all these other countries. I talked to several of the Afghanistan ministers. It’s kinda funny. They’re so overwhelmed by advice from other sources—and well intended advice. You have the Asian Development Bank, the Islamic development bank, you have all these other entities trying to tell them what to do. It’s quite overwhelming for a country that is just building their country’s government up.

Dellinger: The very earliest big infrastructure in the united states, the political leaders who championed it basically were afraid of the nation breaking apart. They were afraid in the 1700's that if we didn’t build a road to what was then the west, the Spanish or the French would kind of take over, and it seems to me there’s a certain political stability element to this.

Colonel Hodgson: Absolutely. It really is the same model. There’s a real opportunity here. For instance, 90% of a farmer’s produce rots before it gets to a market. So if you could build a transportation network—and it’s more than just rail, but the road and the rail in conjunction with each other—so these farmers can get these products to the market, and besides just the mineral deposits and others, and you can economically make this country very viable. We’ve also been looking at—they have a tremendous amount of coal deposits. Well, one of the things Afghanistan really needs tremendously is energy. Coal would be a great way to provide this energy to help 1) to heat the local population, but 2) also to help in smelting the iron ore deposits and the copper deposits, because once you smelt it, it becomes an economically viable way to get to the market.

Dellinger: So who—is your effort strictly a military one? Is the State Department involved? Where does your funding come from, and do you need more of it?

Colonel Hodgson: Really no funding at all. And actually, for the CENTCOM staff it’s more of a labor of love. There’s about 5 or 6 of us that have kind of been behind this whole idea and this project and kinda worked through the bureaucracy so to speak. What we’re trying to do is coordinate and synchronize all the efforts of these various government agencies and non-governmental organizations such as ADB and others. We have a commerce department, you have USAID, you have state department, you have department of transportation. And so we’re just trying to synchronize and coordinate these efforts to get everybody on the same sheet of music so to speak. And that way we can benefit the Afghanistan people a lot better and quicker.

Dellinger: The bankers here seem to agree that political stability in a country is very important to the long-term feasibility of any infrastructure project there. Does the stability element worry you, or is the hunger for transportation there so big that you think these projects will move forward regardless?

Colonel Hodgson: I think it’s one of those things that people have argued about when it comes to political stability. Some would say that once you get the economic part of it stabilized and start growing, that takes care of the political instability. There’s a certain group of us that definitely feel that way. I think once you get a strong economic process in place and get Afghanistan to go from being aid-dependent dependent country into an trade / exporting type country, it’ll make a big difference for them.

Dellinger: Now, tell me a little more about your background, and where you might have seen this work in the past.

Colonel Hodgson: I’m a transportation officer in the US Army. I was the deputy mobility chief at CENTCOM. I was the project officer for the northern distribution network. We knew we had to go into Afghanistan in another way besides Pakistan. You can always lose Pakistan, due to their political instability and certainly the threat of terrorism. WE began working in 2008 on developing this northern distribution network. That was a classic example of everybody saying it couldn’t be done, it couldn’t be done. Certainly the State Department and others were opposed to it at the time, and we just carried on with it and worked hard and got their agreement and support for us. And now the Northern distribution network has delivered over 35,000 containers into Afghanistan in the last year and a half. So it’s been very successful for us. And it’s helped develop our relationships with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. So it’s been a win-win for everyone.

Dellinger: Is trust an issue? Having the military get into economy-building with all those different stakeholders seems like it could be tricky.

Colonel Hodgson: And that’s absolutely right. In fact, that’s one of our concerns. We really don’t want to be leading this effort, per se. We just want to get it rolling and we want to support it. But it really is a civilian-led entity. But our thought was: it’s in our region. We have what we call combat and command areas, and that whole region is ours. And we knew we needed to do something to get the ball rolling. So that’s our intent. We really would be staying behind the scenes on it, and others will take over and run the program once it gets going.

We’re really excited. One of the key things we’ee starting on as part of this Silk Road Trade and Transit Initiative that we’ve started: we’re concentrating on helping Afghanistan build their rail organization. They’ve never had a rail system before in Afghanistan, so now they have this 75 km rail line and they want to build more. So we are hosting a series of meeting, and we’re bringing in some of our commercial rail partners, along with a lot of rail expertise from the Department of Transportation and other organizations, and we’re going to look at helping Afghanistan develop some of their initial laws, rules, regulations, regulatory processes. Also help them develop a rail organization—What is it? You know, it’s an engineering department, it’s a maintenance department, it’s an operations department. Who should be in charge? All of that. And we want to help them build their capacity, help them start setting up training programs. Like locomotive engineers. They’re going to need to train locomotive engineers. Well, the US Army transportation school has a certified locomotive engineering school. So that might be an option. We might be able to use that. Certainly our commercial rail companies might be going to do partnerships, internships with them. And there’s other programs like that that we possibly could use out there, to help the Afghanistan government.

December 6, 2010: An Afghan train worker explains the workings of a conductor board to the Afghan Minister of Finance in Hairaten, Afghanistan. The new train track is more than 75 kms long and provides hundereds of jobs to local Afghans. (Photo by Army Sgt. Michael Reinsch, IJC Public Affairs)

So anyway, their public works minister asked us to help them with that. And I think it’s a real win-win for them. Once again, it’s creating jobs right away and it’s creating part of their government structure, so we’re more than willing to help. Certainly we in the American military—I know a lot of people will wonder why we’re doing this—we probably have more expertise on how to move supplies and equipment than anyone else in the world. You look at the sheer vast numbers that gets moved, it’s amazing. And we get supported by the US Transportation Command, which is where I’m currently located, because I’m a liaison officers to them. That’s outside of St. Louis, in Illinois. And they’re responsible for moving all these tons of supplies, equipment and people. So it’s quite, quite challenging, but we have the expertise to do that.

Dellinger: Who from the federal government are you working with? The US Department of Transportation? The Federal Rail Administration?

Colonel Hodgson: Several different subject-matter experts. They know rail and all that. And we’re bringing in people like Corps of Engineer rail experts. We’re bringing in some of these other outside organizations, such as World Bank and all that, so they can look at possibly financing it and where do we want to go with the next rail project. We certainly don’t want to stop with just that one 75 km line. We need to now start linking the rest of the rail together.

Dellinger: What would you say to people in this country who are worried about the level of investment in our own infrastructure? Some might say we should be developing US rail.

Colonel Hodgson: Very good question. In fact, what we’re looking at won’t take any of our money. We are strictly wanting to—There are millions of dollars worth of projects already laid out there by Asian Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, the European Union, other organizations. It’s just that nobody has really led a view of where we should go next. So we won’t be using US Taxpayer dollars for it, and we certainly aren’t trying to get into nation-building either. It’s more of a case of just assisting Afghanistan and others on how they want to lay down their future transportation, trade, and transit.

Dellinger: Why can’t the banks just go in on their own? They’re concerned about security, or it’s just a coordination issue?

Colonel Hodgson: I think that’s a lot of it. They’re concerned about security, they need—Sometimes you just need someone to lead the effort. And again, the Afghanistan government is just overwhelmed with lots of good ideas and thoughts  and all that. So certainly I think we can help assist and give them a better idea of what way to go forward. Certainly it’s their decision, ultimately. We’re not trying to force anything down the throat of the Afghan government.  We want this for them, and at their request.

Matt Dellinger is the author of the book Interstate 69: The Unfinished History of the Last Great American Highway. You can follow him on Twitter.