Friday, June 25, 2010

Boy, do I feel dumb! Afghan railways

I like to think of myself as smart and well-informed, more interested in world history and comparative history than other people, and sensitive to the little details that change the big picture.

I guess I have to revise that self-image. I just found out today, thanks to Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post, that Afghanistan has never built a railway of any particular length, that it is not connected to the greater network of Asian railways.

Here is my excuse: back in the 1920s, Afghanistan had a modernizing King named Amanulla. After reading Before Taliban about two years ago, I was aware that he built or at least started to build, a railway from Kabul. I know that he came to a bad end and was replaced by a more standoffish government, in typical Afghan style, but it never occurred to me that this was pretty much the end of railway building in Afghanistan! The Soviet military had big plans and actually laid some track, but the anti-Soviet resistance took care to see that it didn't get very far. In more peaceful times, the Kabul government has usually been opposed to the extension of foreign lines into Afghanistan, since those plans were almost always sponsored by the government of British India or the government of Russia.

I really should have known, since I've seen lots of pictures of the Khyber Pass. If you have seen them too, you'll notice that there's nary a track, and no place to hide one, either. Furthermore, that I was teaching first-year world history, I found that it was difficult to talk about and illustrate 19th-century developments without lots of pictures of locomotives. It was the prestigious symbol of modernization and development in those times -- and into the 20th-century, too. I should've been sensitive to the fact that there are no such pictures of Afghanistan, and what pictures of Afghanistan there are have no locomotives.

The lack of rail transport in Afghanistan is not just a symbol of the country's rejection of the outside world, it is one of the major concrete policies that Afghan governments have usedto guarantee of outsiders will not, in somebody's words,plunge a knife into the vitals of the country. (Of course they have had to deal with large-scale air transport for long time now, and there are highways, but that doesn't take away from the original point. See what Eugene Robinson has to say about the prospects of mining in Afghanistan.) I am sure that not everyone feels that way about the outside world, but enough do.

If you're interested in the railways of Afghanistan, such as they are, see this excellent article on the web and its various links.

Image: somebody else's railway.


  1. Anonymous2:10 am

    But; actually there are precious few roads there, and perhaps NO highways.