CIA information on the Torghundi freight terminal

Turkmen Railways locomotive at Towraghondi

In an attempt to pin down more precisely the opening date of the railway from Serhetabat in Turkmenistan to Towraghandi in Afghanistan, I had a look at some CIA documents which are now publicly available.1

Presumably the CIA would have kept a close eye on transport links to the Soviet border.

My suspicion is that the railway was extended from Kushka into Afghanistan circa 1960-1964 as part of the Soviet-backed Kuskha – Herat – Khandahar road improvement project, which was agreed by the USSR and Afghanistan on 28 May 1959.2

A July 1964 US photographic interpretation report describes Soviet military facilities at Kushka (now known as Serhetabat),3 with photos and a map of the “supply depot and rail-to-road transfer point” located “6 km southwest of Kushka at the terminus of the Mary-Kushka branch rail line, approximately 3 km from the Afghanistan border”.

1964 Central Intelligence Agency map of rail facilities at Kushka
(Map: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964)

Although the site is shown in the report as being located on the Soviet side of the Afghan border, comparing the photos, map and the latitude and longitude shows that the rail facility which is being described is almost certainly the same thing as the current Towraghondi (to pick one of many spellings!) freight terminal, which is inside Afghanistan.

1964 Central Intelligence Agency map of rail facilities at Kushka
(Map: Central Intelligence Agency, 1964)

So it looks like the railway did exist by 1964, but we now have a question as to why the 1964 CIA document put the Soviet-Afghan border further south and west of the current Turkmenistan-Afghan border. As far as I know, the border in the area has not moved since being fixed in the late 19th century, and Soviet maps such as this one from 1985 show the current border with the railway extending into Afghanistan:

Soviet map showing the railway from Kushka to Towraghondi


  1. Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room, CIA
  2. Central Intelligence Bulletin, 29 January 1969, CIA, USA

Opening of the Khyber railway

The UK’s National Army Museum has this rather good photo of The opening of the Khyber railway, 1925. Photograph by Randolph Bezzant Holmes (1888-1973), India, North West Frontier, 1925. NAM Image Number 118645.

The text says:

The Khyber Pass Railway from Jamrud, near Peshawar, to the Afghan border near Landi Kotal was opened on 4 November 1925. Built to allow easier movement of troops to the frontier, the railway climbed more than 1,200 metres (3,900 feet) through 34 tunnels and 92 bridges, and culverts to reach Landi Kotal.

Chaman, Shela Bagh and Gulistan stations in 1895

Photo taken by William Henry Jackson and published in Harper’s Weekly, 1895, now available on the Library of Congress website.

Chaman station
Railway station at Chaman, near Kojak Tunnel.

Gulistan station
Gulistan Station on the Great Military Railway.

Gulistan station
Although labelled as “Gulistan Station on the Great Military Railway, at entrance to Kojak Tunnel”, this is actually Shela Bagh station.

In Afghanistan there are several 2 ft gauge railways…

A very interesting claim that there were some 2 foot gauge railways in Afghanistan in 1894 (one may have been at the Mashin Khana royal arsenal in Kabul).

Narrow-gauge railways.
Wednesday, 25th July, 1894.
J Harris in the Chair:
This 2-ft. line is also established in Madagascar where the French rule, it is also in Afghanistan, Turkestan, and Siberia. It was introduced there by Skobeloff. When he was meditating the invasion of India he had this introduced, and I may state that the Russian troops were seen using one of those railways on the frontier for military purposes before the British knew anything about it. When the outposts observed it they reported it to the Commander-in-Chief and he telegraphed to the War Office. The War Office ordered railways of this sort to be sent out straight. They were sent over mountains on the backs of elephants to the frontier. In Afghanistan there are several 2-ft. railways.
Source: Narrow-gauge railways, Minutes of Evidence at the railway standing committee, Victoria, Australia.

Railway “Just like pushing a knife into my vitals”

The Amir of Afghanistan’s colourful and often-quoted description of British railway expansion towards his country being like a knife in his vitals comes from his autobiography.

having cut a tunnel through the Khojak Hill they were pushing the rail line into my country just like pushing a knife into my vitals
Source: The Life of Abdur Rahman, Amir of Afghanistan, volume 2, page 159

the Khojak tunnel, circa 1905

The Khojak Tunnel is on the Chaman Extension Railway, which opened in September 1891 to link Quetta with Chaman on the Afghan frontier. Chaman would have been the starting point for the construction of a British railway to Kandahar, had the military situation required it.

The book The Life of Abdur Rahman, Amir of Afghanistan, G.C.B., G.C.S.I. (John Murray, London, 1900; reprinted in 1980), is nominally the autobiography of the monarch known as the “Iron Amir” who ruled Afghanistan from 1880 to his death on 1 October 1901.

However the introduction to the 1980 reprint by Malcolm E Yapp suggests the book was written by state secretary Sultan Mahomed Khan, who travelled England to study at Christ’s College in Cambridge where he wrote a dissertation on the laws of Afghanistan. Sultan Mahomed Khan corresponded with the Amir while writing the book, but the Amir died before seeing the finished work.

Abdur Rahman, Amir of Afghanistan

Yapp calls the book “a careful piece of propaganda designed to present the Amir to British readers in the most favourable light”. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan “it was better for the Amir’s reputation that he did not appear as the author.”

Yapp notes that the Amir “was absorbed by the latest mechanical contrivances (he claimed to mend all the watches in Kabul) and had a vast store of miscellaneous items of information.”

He was “a man of depth and complexity. […] On the one hand he murdered his opponents with a relish which bordered on the sadistic and on the other he could spend hours arranging flowers in vases.”