Taliban plan regional energy trade hub with Russian oil in mind

FILE PHOTO: Taliban's acting commerce minister Haji Nooruddin Azizi speaks during an interview with Reuters, at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Beijing

By Mohammad Yunus Yawar and Charlotte Greenfield

KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban has agreed with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to build a logistics hub in western Afghanistan aimed at making the war-torn nation a major logistics point for regional exports, including oil from Russia to South Asia, the country's commerce minister said.

Following a meeting between representatives of the three countries in the Afghan capital last week, Taliban acting commerce minister Nooruddin Azizi told Reuters that technical teams would draw up a written agreement within two months on the formal plans for the hub, which all three countries would invest in after six months of talks.

As foreign aid to Afghanistan falls and the predominantly agricultural economy is marred by persistent drought, its officially unrecognised Taliban government has faced questions over how to fund development and avoid economic stagnation.

Azizi said the new hub was part of broader efforts to take advantage of Afghanistan's strategic location, once a thoroughfare for the ancient Silk Road trade route, lying between South and Central Asia and sharing borders with China and Iran.

"Based on our discussions, a logistics centre is going to be established in Herat province, which can connect the north to South Asia," Azizi said, adding that the Taliban were eyeing the millions of tons of oil they expected Russia would be selling in coming years to South Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, to pass through the new hub.

"The three countries have done their best to prove Afghanistan's claim as a connectivity point," he said.

"Reaching Pakistan through Afghanistan will be the best option," Azizi added, saying they were focused on Russia's petroleum exports and that Kazakhstan was also planning to export goods through Herat into South Asian markets.

Kazakhstan's trade ministry said in a statement to Reuters that it wanted to develop roads and a railway through Afghanistan to connect with South Asia and the Gulf, with the hub serving as an important logistics point.

"The creation of the hub will allow for the development of multi-modal services by consolidating truck shipments in the dry port where they will be sorted and sent along railroads on the North-South corridor to sea ports in the Gulf, Pakistan, and Indian Ocean, towards India," the statement said.

Azizi said the logistics hub's initial capacity would be one million tons of oil but he did not give a date for when it would be operational.

Turkmenistan's government did not immediately respond to a request for comment and the Russian government did not respond to a request for comment during a national holiday.

Pakistan's foreign office and energy minister did not respond to a request for comment. Pakistan is a major trading partner with Afghanistan and has signed on to regional energy connectivity agreements.

However, Islamabad has had strained relations with the Taliban in recent years over accusations Afghanistan is harbouring anti-Pakistan militants, which Kabul denies.

Cash-strapped Pakistan last year became Russia's latest customer, snapping up discounted crude that has been banned from European markets due to Russia's war on Ukraine.

Afghanistan also buys oil, gas and wheat from Russia at discounted rates.

Azizi said that the Taliban were also speaking with Chinese authorities on building a road through the remote, narrow Wakhan corridor that connects Afghanistan with China and that they hoped Afghanistan would eventually develop into a route for trade between China and Iran. He said Afghan commerce ministry officials had been recently been sent to China for training.

(Reporting by Mohammad Yunus Yawar in Kabul and Charlotte Greenfield in Islamabad; Additional reporting by Tamara Vaal in Astana; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)