Afghan City Prospers Under Tough Governor

In northern Afghanistan, Mazar-e-Sharif is a city of one million bustling with optimism and development. That's in sharp contrast with Kabul and Kandahar. Many attribute the city's growth to the governor, who has capitalized on the relative security of that region. But the governor has a reputation as a strongman who doesn't tolerate opposition in any form.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

No question about it, Afghanistan can certainly use the billions of dollars the U.S. plans to spend on reconstruction and development projects. But there is one city in the north of Afghanistan that seems to be doing fine on its own.

NPR's Jackie Northam paid a visit to Mazar-e-Sharif.

(Sound bite of traffic)

JACKIE NORTHAM: There is one sound that rises above all others in Mazar-e-Sharif. It's louder than the call to prayer five times a day, from the 15th century Blue Mosque in city center. It rises above the din of traffic that never seems to slow in this city of one million people. The dominant sound in Mazar-e-Sharif lately is the sound of progress.

(Sound bite of machinery)

NORTHAM: You hear it at the many construction sites around the city, at the lumberyards and the factories. Old buildings are being torn down. New apartment blocks and shopping centers are going up. By Afghan standards, Mazar-e-Sharif is a boomtown.

Qassim Rahimi(ph) is the managing director of Barakat(ph), a large Afghan construction and import/export company, which has branches in three regional countries. Rahimi says only part of all this development is being paid for by the government.

Mr. QASSIM RAHIMI (Managing Director, Barakat): I believe the biggest support comes from the people of Mazar-e-Sharif, from the business people, from the people who are doing business here. And they are participating and they are spending their own money to build Mazar-e-Sharif.

NORTHAM: From Rahimi's office in a new building, you can see a freshly painted traffic circle. In the center is a large modern sculpture. It's called Barakat Circle. Rahimi says it cost the company $150,000. It's one of many traffic circles in Mazar-e-Sharif that are paid for by local companies, each one seemingly better constructed or adorned than the next.

There are also streets named after Afghan Airlines, which have helped finance the city's development. One of the features of Mazar-e-Sharif is its smooth paved roads, unusual in Afghanistan. Large trucks coming from Central Asia constantly move through the city.

Rahimi says business has picked up since Afghanistan's other transit routes have become more insecure.

Mr. RAHAMI: Mazar-e-Sharif became a gate for the import of variety of products, especially foodstuff and petroleum. And all these items are being imported here, Mazar-e-Sharif, and then from here it's going to be distributed among other cities, even to Kabul or Kandar or Gardeyz(ph) or other places.

NORTHAM: Mazar-e-Sharif lies on the old Silk Road; business is part of the city's tradition. Rahimi, like many others, says effort to continue that tradition can be attributed to the provincial governor, a former commander in the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, named Ustad Atta Mohammad.

Anna Larsen(ph), with the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, says Atta has been instrumental in keeping Mazar-e-Sharif and the rest of province secure.

Ms. ANNA LARSEN (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit): Ustad Atta is extremely powerful. He's very influential in the area. He has a lot of support from the people of Mazar City and also outside. Anyone who is anyone is connected to Ustad Atta and that is not a secret - that is relatively well-known.

NORTHAM: But Larsen says if you don't have those connections with Atta, it's difficult to get anywhere. Many local people say Atta has a reputation as a strong man who doesn't tolerate opposition.

In a recent study, Larson's organization found very few political parties emerging in the Mazar-e-Sharif region.

Ms. LARSEN: And also, (unintelligible) did exit, talking very much about the limits to political freedom. So it seems that you have a sort of tradeoff between the economic development on one hand, and on the other hand, the political freedom that you might expect in a fledgling democracy, perhaps.

(Sound bite of ink jet printer)

NORTHAM: But Sumat Jurazoda(ph), who runs a small printing company, says compared to the rest of Afghanistan that trade off in Mazar-e-Sharif is worth it, as least for now.

Mr. SUMAT JURAZODA (Printer): (Through Translator) My business has doubled over the last five years. It's good now. Anyone can do business in Mazar-e-Sharif.

NORTHAM: A smiling Jurazoda says he plans to buy more printing presses in the next few months and expand his business.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Mazar-e-Sharif.

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