Workers at a tomato paste factory in Mazar e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, if you're a Westerner, you must take your signs of progress where you can get them.
In Marzar e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, for instance, one such sign is a tomato-paste factory.
But for Westerners to get to that factory is a reminder of just how uncertain conditions are, as NPR's Rachel Martin learned when she recently accompanied NATO troops on a factory visit.
In a report on All Things Considered Friday, Rachel informed us that the troops rode from their base to eight armored vehicles to reach the factory:
At least two of these vehicles are basically big armored humvees with sand-colored netting all over them. But other vehicles look like small tanks, gunmen perched on top, at the ready.
The convoy arrives at the factory and a German commander gets out to tour the facility.
A pistol strapped to his chest, he greets the Afghan factory owner with a smile. That’s the way it sometimes goes in this counterinsurgency – reaching out with one hand, clutching a gun with the other.
NATO forces point to signs of progress in this part of the country – in particular the growth of small businesses like this one. One at a time workers fill metal cans with the bright red tomato paste, then send them down the assembly line where they’re each stamped with a lid.
Sayed Araf opened this factory in 2008 with the help of a US grant. Every day his plant churns out 26,000 containers of tomato paste – made exclusively with Afghan ingredients.
ARAF: Security is good, here he says. Mazar is the safest place in Afghanistan.
Sounds good but safety is obviously a relative notion. The safest place in Afghanistan is still pretty unsafe by Western standards.
And as it turns out, Rachel talked with someone not far from the factory who offered an entirely different picture than Araf's of the situation in that region of northern Afghanistan.
RACHEL: Gul Makai Siawash is running for parliament in the upcoming national elections. She says the usually peaceful North feels like it’s starting to unravel.
SIAWASH: Day by day, the security is not good. And always I think 'Why we don’t have security? Thirty four countries come here with American forces. Why we don’t have peace?' "
RACHEL: Both these perspectives on security are rooted in reality. Life in the north is relatively normal for Afghans, especially in the urban centers.
But outside the cities, away from the direct gaze of NATO, the Taliban are making inroads.