Cablegate: Tajik-Afghan Bridge Opens in Style

DE RUEHDBU #1255/01 2471104
R 041104Z SEP 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


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1. (U) On August 26, after 19 months of construction led by the
Afghan Engineering Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,
$37 million in U.S. funding, 19,100 cubic meters of concrete,
and countless demarches and interventions by the Embassy to
secure building materials and licenses, Tajik President Emomali
Rahmon, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and U.S. Secretary of
Commerce Carlos Gutierrez officially opened the new bridge
linking Nizhniy Pyanj, Tajikistan and Sher Khan Bander,
Afghanistan. The 673 meter span across the Pyanj River is
designed to handle 1000 trucks a day and withstand the largest
floods and strongest earthquakes known to occur in this
seismically active region.

A Little bit of Vision...


2. (U) Each of the three principals at the opening recognized
the historic importance of this bridge, linking not just
Tajikistan and Afghanistan, but Central and South Asia. Both
Karzai and Rahmon spoke about their nations' historic role as
"places in between" the great trading empires and evoked the
image of the Great Silk Road to describe their future role in a
revived transcontinental trade route, criss-crossed by caravans
of Kamaz trucks instead of camels. Such trade links had been
all but severed for centuries during the "Great Game" and
subsequent Soviet domination of Central Asia. The bridge almost
halves the distance from Dushanbe to a seaport. A renovated
spur road links Sher Khan Bander to Kunduz and to Afghanistan's
quickly developing network of newly constructed roads. On the
Tajik side, the Japanese government has already initiated road
repairs from the bridge north to Qurghon-Teppa, Chinese loans
and Asian Development Bank grants are financing construction of
roads north from Dushanbe, and Iran continues work on a tunnel
through the Anzob pass.

... and a Big Dose of Reality


3. (U) Lofty aspirations notwithstanding, the three principals
also recognized the daunting tasks remaining to make the new
Silk Road a reality. President Rahmon's speech at the ribbon
cutting called for joint efforts by Tajikistan, Afghanistan and
the international community to ensure the bridge will not be
used for evil purposes, such as drug trafficking or movement of
terrorists, and President Karzai noted that much work remains in
order to develop the full potential of the bridge. Secretary
Gutierrez was more specific, echoing points he raised in private
meetings with the Tajik and Afghan leaders: customs officials
and border guards from the two sides need to collaborate more
closely. Press covering the event also raised the specter of a
poorly managed bridge facilitating illicit trade in Afghan

4. (SBU) Tajik and Afghan officials recognize this danger too,
and in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony, we observed
a few promising signs that the Tajiks might overcome their
predisposition not to deal with their Afghan counterparts.
Embassy staff were instrumental in prodding local border
officials on either side of the still incomplete bridge to sit
down together and begin discussing standard operating procedures
for the bridge. A week prior to the ceremony during a
reconnaissance trip to the bridge, the Ambassador met with the
Tajik Governor of Khatlon and the Afghan Governor of Kunduz
literally at the center of the 673-meter span, where the
governors informed her that they would be ready to operate on
the Monday following the ceremony, allowing 50 cars to pass in
either direction. Comment: This is a small start, but not
unreasonable given the fact that the border facilities on either
side of the bridge are still several weeks from completion. We
plan to use President Rahmon's "promise" to cooperate with the
Afghans to press the Tajik border guards to conduct joint
training programs with their neighbors to the south, and to
obtain better treatment from Tajik consuls for Afghan
businessmen applying for visas. End comment.

What's in a Name?

DUSHANBE 00001255 002.2 OF 003


5. (SBU) After two years of work on the bridge and a gala
opening ceremony, there is still no consensus on what to call
the bridge. People on the Tajik side of the river tend to refer
to it as the Nizhniy Pyanj bridge (or Panji Payon in Tajiki)
after the small village nearest the Tajik bridgehead. People on
the Afghan side usually refer to it as the Sher Khan Bander
bridge for similar reasons. In his opening speech, President
Rahmon settled on the name "Friendship Bridge" (Puli Dusti),
which resonates well with Tajiks who are used to such Soviet-era
formulations and because the larger town an hour from the bridge
is called Dusti (friendship). As he read out his speech,
however, the large banner unfurled below the podium read simply
"Puli Panji Payon" (Nizhniy Pyanj Bridge). Nor did President
Karzai take up Rahmon's suggested moniker, although he said the
bridge symbolized the connections and friendship between the
Afghan and Tajik people. Karzai may also be more sensitive to
the fact that a different bridge downstream, built by the
Soviets at Termez, Uzbekistan was named the "Friendship Bridge"
and was later used to invade Afghanistan. In addition, the name
"Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge" is already in use elsewhere
(and has its own Wikipedia entry), referring to one of the
smaller bridges across the Pyanj built by the Aga Khan
Development Network.

6. (U) Naming the river is also a bit confusing. The Pyanj (a
Russianized variant of the Persian Panj) is the main tributary
to the Amu Darya. Most maps use the label Amu Darya once the
Pyanj meets the Vakhsh River, just downstream from the new
bridge and before it flows to Uzbekistan. Some Afghans tend to
include the entire Pyanj as part of the Amu Darya. Since
Alexander's armies came this way, Westerners have called the
river the Oxus. And some ancient texts and many current
residents still refer to it as the Jayhun -- one of the four
rivers which watered the Garden of Eden.

Of Palaces, Palates, and Pilates


7. (SBU) President Rahmon relished his role as host of the
bridge opening ceremonies. He presided over lavish multi-course
meals, including a dinner at a new presidential "dacha" complex
which is being expanded to accommodate the Commonwealth of
Independent States summit in October. The new dacha overlooks
the Palace of the Nation also in the last stages of construction
-- by the same Italian contractor who built the bridge -- and
reputed to cost close to $90 million so far. The grandeur
continued after the dinner with a presidentially guided tour of
the government dacha compound where the Afghan and American
delegations spent the night. The dacha compound continues to
grow, with whole neighborhoods displaced to make room for
additional conference halls and guest houses. The tour included
a look inside the new sports complex built just for Rahmon. It
includes an indoor tennis court, Olympic sized pool, multiple
work-out rooms, sauna complex, and billiard hall, where Karzai
successfully tried his hand at Rahmon's favorite game. The
crowning achievement of the complex is an imposing domed edifice
with five stories and room after room of over-the-top opulence.
The building can house four heads of state at the same time.
Standing on the roof and looking out at the lights of the city
(note: much of the city was without lights for five months last
winter due to electricity shortages), Secretary of Commerce
Gutierrez asked the Ambassador what she was thinking. The
Ambassador replied that she was thinking about the half of the
Tajik population living below the poverty line.

8. (SBU) Rahmon appears to be enjoying the trappings of royalty
more and more. After a beautiful recitation of Persian poetry
set to music at the dinner in Dushanbe, Rahmon summoned his
favorite singer to the bridge opening ceremony the next day,
where he displaced some of the locally arranged musical groups
and sang for almost 10 minutes about the virtues of the
president. (Rahmon's other favorite singer also came to the
bridge where she delivered a kitschy but climate-appropriate
rendition of Gershwin's Summertime in accented English.) Rahmon
is too young and healthy to stir speculation about an heir, but
we did spot his young son accompanying him down the bridge
toward the ribbon cutting. Slightly more troubling, official

DUSHANBE 00001255 003.2 OF 003

state-owned Tajik press covering the event omitted the
information about the bridge being funded by the United States.
The credit all goes to Rahmon.

9. (SBU) Despite their differences in style, Rahmon genuinely
enjoyed his time with Karzai. Rahmon personally drove Karzai 40
minutes outside Dushanbe to visit the historic sites of Hissor
and enjoy a picnic at the central bank chief's private dacha.
Later Rahmon joked to the American delegation that because of
the Afghans' presence, we would have to settle for a
"traditional cup of tea" at the dinner -- meaning we would have
to keep the vodka hidden in tea-cups. An hour later in the
Tajik-Afghan-U.S. trilateral, Rahmon repeated the joke to Karzai
himself, who decided to interpret it literally. At one point
during the dinner, Rahmon's foreign policy advisor, Erkin
Rahmatulloev, poured some vodka into Afghan Foreign Minster
Spanta's juice, but overall surprisingly little vodka was
consumed. Perhaps the early morning start to the bridge was on
everyone's mind.

© Scoop Media

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