Even Safe Areas Of Afghanistan Are Dangerous

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In northern Afghanistan, a tomato sauce factory is one sign that progress is being made and that locals are living semi-normal lives. But all isn't quite normal: It took eight armored vehicles to bring visitors safely to the factory this week.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

NATO is reporting three deaths of coalition service members in Afghanistan today; also, a raid in the eastern part of the country that led to the arrest of the commander of a group with al-Qaida links.

This next story, though, offers one hopeful sign that normal life is possible in a country torn by war.

NPR's Rachel Martin visited a tomato paste factory in the country's north. But as you'll hear, even the supposedly safe parts of Afghanistan can be treacherous.

RACHEL MARTIN: It's been more than two years since NATO forces in Mazar-i-Sharif had to deal with a major security incident. So you may think paying a visit to a local factory here, in the safest part of Afghanistan, wouldn't be a big deal.

(Soundbite of armored vehicles)

MARTIN: That's the sound of eight armored vehicles. That's what it takes to transport a handful of NATO military officials from their base into town. 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.

(Soundbite of conversations)

MARTIN: 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 Aref opened this factory in 2008 with the help of a U.S. grant. Every day, his plant churns out 26,000 containers of tomato paste made exclusively with Afghan ingredients.

Mr. SAYED AREF (Owner, Tomato Paste Factory): (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: Security is good here, he says, Mazar is the safest place in Afghanistan.

Just down the road, a different take. 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.

Ms. GUL MAKAI SIAWASH (Parliament Candidate): Day by day, the security - it is not good. And always I think, why we don't have security? Thirty four country come here with America forces. Why we don't have peace?

MARTIN: 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.

Brigadier General Hans Schmidt is the base commander in Balkh Province.

Brigadier General HANS SCHMIDT (Base Commander, Balkh Province): There is also increased activity in the western areas of Mazar-i-Sharif and further onto the west. The Swedish PRT is under constant attack by insurgents.

MARTIN: All this has complicated the NATO mission in the north. On one hand, NATO commanders are eager to play up stability to their home governments, which want to avoid military casualties. On the other hand, they don't want to make the area sound too stable, for fear that their countries will think the work is done and pull out. The Dutch left Afghanistan earlier this month; the Canadians have one foot out the door; and the Germans will decide at the end of this year whether to extend their mission in Afghanistan. There's public pressure in Germany to leave.

Again, German General Hans Schmidt.

Mr. SCHMIDT: It is always difficult to inform the broad population of the very difficult details of our mission. The politicians in charge are very well in the picture of what we do here, and what needs to be done.

MARTIN: NATO commanders here say they finally have the strategy and resources to turn the tide in Afghanistan, and to pull out next year would be a mistake. For now, they're trying to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that demands engaging with the Afghan people, building faith that things are moving in the right direction. And that means tours through the towns and visits to tomato factories, even if it takes a convoy of eight armored vehicles to get there.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Kabul.

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