Uzbek traders bemoan fate of trade since Taliban takeover in Afghanistan

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As the trucks arrive in Termez in southern Uzbekistan, crouching drivers complain about the trade suffering since the Taliban seized power nearby.

As the trucks arrive in blasts of dust at a logistics center in the southern Uzbekistan town of Termez, crouching drivers complain about the suffering of commerce since the Taliban seized power nearby. Photo: AFP

TERMINATE – As trucks arrive in blasts of dust at a logistics center in the southern Uzbekistan town of Termez, crouching drivers complain about the suffering of commerce since the Taliban took power nearby .

“Our round trip used to take three days, now we are there for a week,” said Rafik Khujakov, an Uzbek who makes regular deliveries of beans to the Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif and brings home apples. Earth.

“Their people don’t know how to use computers! “

Khujakov said the Taliban cracked down on border corruption, but businesses and drivers were losing money due to long delays.

“They check and double check. It has become very difficult,” he moaned, in a refrain echoed by several other traders at the hub.

More than two months after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, border traders in southern Uzbekistan are nevertheless discovering that it is possible – so complicated – to do business with religious extremists.

Landlocked Uzbekistan, once home to US-led coalition forces that overthrew the Taliban, took a business-first approach with the group, while companies from the former Soviet Republic of Central Asia are looking for a way to the ports of Pakistan and Iran.

At the heart of this effort is the Termez Cargo Center, a logistics platform opened five years ago to coordinate cross-border trade, mainly to Mazar-i-Sharif, 60 km away, in northern Afghanistan.

NEW CHALLENGES

Trade with Afghanistan has always been difficult, but Termez business owners said the Taliban takeover presented a new set of challenges.

A business owner told AFP his costs had increased because his drivers – all Afghan nationals with visas to Uzbekistan – refused to travel beyond the Afghan border post at Hairatan, fearing they would not be able to come back.

That means his company has to pay different drivers on the other side for subsequent trips, explained the businessman, who only gave his first name Ahmad because of concerns for relatives living in Afghanistan.

“I do not see any good in the coming to power of this group,” said Ahmad, a Russian citizen born in Afghanistan.

On the Afghan side of the “Friendship Bridge” which spans the Amou-Daria river, the head of customs of the Taliban government in Hairatan has denied the allegations of delays.

“There is no such thing. All businessmen are satisfied … They are happier than under the previous government. Goods go through customs faster,” said Abdul Sattar Rashid.

For Afghanistan, Hairatan “is the first or second most important (border crossing) in terms of income,” Rashid said on a morning when AFP correspondents saw several trucks and two trains, each pulling around 30 of wagons, cross the bridge.

Uzbekistan’s bilateral trade with Afghanistan amounted to $ 776 million in 2020, up a quarter from the previous year.

Before the Taliban takeover, Kabul and Tashkent planned to increase that amount to $ 2 billion by 2023.

TRAIN THROUGH THE TALIBAN TERRITORY?

A railway project from Mazar-i-Sharif to the Pakistani city of Peshawar via Kabul was underway, which would open up prospects for transfers of bulk goods such as coal.

But construction would take years and it will likely be difficult to secure funding for the project given the Taliban’s international isolation.

Nodir Jalilov, head of the Termez Cargo Center, is convinced that there are still good prospects for the hub, which received three shipments of humanitarian aid destined for Mazar earlier this month.

“Our center has a great future in terms of transit trade [Afghanistan] to Pakistani ports like Gwadar and Karachi, “he told AFP.

“Of course, the word ‘Afghanistan’ always scares business people.”

The railroad was one of the many topics discussed during talks in mid-October in Termez between a Taliban delegation and the Uzbek authorities, who did not recognize the new government, despite the warming of relations.

Another was electricity, which Uzbekistan said it would continue to provide to Afghanistan despite non-payment from cash-strapped authorities.

Amrullo Sadullah, a charismatic Afghan businessman who moved to Uzbekistan in the 1990s and is now a hub business partner, came to work with teary eyes after staying awake until the early hours to drink tea with the delegation curious.

“What did they want to know? All ! How do people live here, what Afghanistan can buy, what Afghanistan can sell, ”he said, dismissing his personal view of the Taliban and their policies as irrelevant.

In recent years, more and more Afghans have settled in Termez, said Sadullah, who predicted a bright future for the sleepy city of 200,000 people.

“When you come back to Termez in five years, you won’t recognize him!” he promised.

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