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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 August 2007, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
New Tajik-Afghan bridge sparks hope
By Natalia Antelava
BBC News

The Tajik-Afghan bridge
Critics fear the bridge may help the spread of extremism - and drugs
The presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan have inaugurated a new bridge linking the two countries across the River Panj.

The $37m (18.4m) project is the United States' gift to the region, and Washington hopes that it will restore the ancient trade ties, as well as helping to bring much needed economic relief to the two countries.

Things by the Tajik-Afghan border have been hot and hectic.

Covered in dust, and sweating under the blistering sun, several dozen men worked to build a massive stage there.

A few feet away from them, a group of teenagers in traditional dresses had spent a day giggling away and rehearsing their performance dance.

It [the river] made drug trafficking more difficult, it did not allow extremism to spread, now we no longer have that buffer
Ilhom Nazriev Tajik journalist

The US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez joined the Afghan and Tajik presidents inaugurating the bridge that the Americans have built for them.

The money is nothing compared to the political investment. For the US this is a showcase project, a proof that things can go right for Afghanistan and its neighbours.

For two years Brian Walls of the US Army Corp of Engineers, has been in charge of the construction here.

He says the bridge is the missing link of the ancient Silk Road, and that linking Afghanistan with its neighbour will help the economies on both sides, and beyond.

"Of course first of all it will be beneficial for Afghanistan and Tajikistan, but I think other countries too will get involved, and commerce will be able to flourish," Walls said.

Teenagers wearing traditional dress will dance as part of a special ceremony
Teenagers wearing traditional dress take part in a special ceremony

There is not much traffic between the two countries at the moment. An unreliable ferry service is the only way of getting across the fast-flowing river, and no more than a dozen cars a day manage to make the journey.

The bridge could increase this number to 1,000. The potential economic gains of this project are enormous, but according to the Tajik journalist, Ilhom Nazriev, so are the potential risks.

It sits along the world's biggest drug trade routes and much of the Afghan opium makes its way to Europe via Tajikistan. Enhancing communication, some fear, could make the problem worse.

Mr Nazriev said: "No question that this is hugely important both for Tajikistan and Afghanistan. It may allow us to trade with places like China or India, but we are also going to lose a natural buffer zone.

"The river used to protect us from Afghanistan's troubles in some ways. It made drug trafficking more difficult, it did not allow extremism to spread, now we no longer have that buffer."

The bridge does offer a link to the outside world that Afghanistan has long needed.

But with the security situation deteriorating and with drug trafficking on the rise, the question is whether bringing Afghanistan closer to the world will help to solve its problems, or will it, in fact, allow them to spread.




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