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Afghanistan opens first ever train route
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ of 12/21/2011 - In a rare piece of good news for the war-ravaged country, a train chugged into the newly built station in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for the first time on Wednesday after its inaugural 47-mile journey from the border with Uzbekistan.
Afghanistan has never had a functioning rail network. The £105 million project funded by the Asian Development Bank comes over a century after her ruler deliberately refused to join the rail age fearing any track would be used by invading foreign troops.
The country's industrial development was also victim of manoeuvres of the 19th century Great Game rivalry between Russia and Britain. Soviet occupiers abandoned a few rail projects in the 1980s, and later years of bitter civil war made such construction impossible.
The new railway comes after Pakistan closed off the supply route to Nato troops last month following an air strike on an army outpost killed 24 soldiers on Nov 26.
Nearly half of all cargo bound for Nato-led forces had run through Pakistan. Roughly 140,000 foreign troops, including about 97,000 Americans, rely on supplies from outside Afghanistan for the decade-long war effort.
"It's actually a big deal. It's very significant both practically and symbolically," said Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
A US military spokesman says the new railway will be key to supplying American troops - and possibly also withdrawing non-lethal cargo during the troop drawdown set to begin next year.
"We do not have numbers yet, (but) we anticipate that the rail line will be able to speed the transit of cargo into Afghanistan and out of it," said Cmdr. Bill Speaks of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The Uzbekistan link is part of a wider ambitious plan to connect Afghanistan to its neighbours by rail.
Afghan officials are already planning to expand its infant railroad with another proposed line to Turkmenistan to the northwest.
Last month India unveiled plans to build what could be the world's most dangerous railroad from Afghanistan's mineral-rich heartland to an Iranian port on the Arabian Sea in attempt to open a new trade route and reduce Kabul's dependence on Pakistan.
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