Helmand looks overseas to kick-start investment

People at Garvsi market in Lashkar Gah
Image caption Life in Helmand has become easier in the past two years, locals say

Up a dusty staircase in a small nondescript house in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, stands a group of men with big ambitions for their province.

The sign outside does not inspire confidence.

It reads 'Bust Traders' Association'. The sign-writer, not familiar with English, was confusing bust with 'Bost' - the ancient name for this region of Afghanistan.

The deputy director of the association, Haji Hamidullah, is a money-changer - a lucrative job in a region that earns huge foreign currency from the sale of opium, extracted from poppies.

But Mr Hamidullah wants to change that, with ambitious plans for the region that do not include drug money.

His main complaint is that Helmandi businesses do not win the big contracts now available from the international community. He says that, instead, they go to 'influential people' in Kabul, leaving Helmandi businesses providing labour as subcontractors.

Corruption record

Britain's Department for International Development (DFID) is running seminars to help businesses secure the big contracts, and now that 20% of their funding goes directly to Helmand, they are running tenders for work locally too.

But Mr Hamidullah knows that the international money is only a short-term fix.

Image caption The sale of opium from poppies brings in foreign currency

He is keen to encourage his colleagues to register to pay tax so that the Afghan government can provide services. He is not concerned about the government's appalling record for corruption, blaming it instead on NGOs and other international organisations.

And along with a tax system that will help Afghanistan to stand on its own, he wants to encourage inward investment to build prosperity. He says that security is no longer an obstacle for investors.

"It has improved in the last two years. A year ago we could say that security had improved 50%. Now it has improved 100%," he explains.

Bandit country

A government business consultant Noor Atta agrees.

He says that businessmen here never had a problem with the Taliban. Instead, they are concerned about kidnapping or assassination.

British military sources now believe that there are some signs that the reduction in fighting may be more than the usual winter lull. If that is true, there is the intriguing possibility that Helmand may be returning to what it was before the Taliban emerged 17 years ago, when it was bandit country with tribes battling for control of territory and opium profits - a law and order problem but not an insurgency.

Noor Atta says that there were too many mistakes made in not reviving the Afghan economy in the early post-Taliban years after 2001.

"A lot of people from the beginning, the first two years of Karzai, they were trying to find themselves jobs. When they couldn't do that, that's when they started other things," he says.

He is trying to persuade Afghan investors to bring their money back from the Gulf and put it into Helmand.

Eight hundred million dollars (£497m) left Kabul airport in suitcases last year, and that's only the money that is known about. Billions were carried out illegally.

'Investment opportunity'

Whether it was drug money or misspent aid money, British economic expert with DFID Adrian Green says it would transform the country if it were invested here.

He is a bullish advocate for the region - planning a large enterprise zone near Bost airport which, he is fond of reminding people, is only 90 minutes flying time from the Gulf and close to 20% of the world's population.

Image caption Helmand was once one of the most prosperous parts of Afghanistan

"The security is improving so quickly at the moment that investors, including locals, who get in on the ground floor now will see significant returns," he says.

"There's a great investment opportunity. The country is stabilising. Historically it was always a fairly prosperous country at the heart of a growing region, and now it's at the heart of a very prosperous region."

The large farmed area of central Helmand was once one of the most prosperous parts of Afghanistan, thanks to a dam and irrigation system built by the US in the 1950s.

Grapes, almonds, pomegranates and cotton can be grown here - as well as wheat, which is the main substitute for opium poppies, since it shares its growing season and needs the same kind of ground.

The trick will be to put food-processing plants into that enterprise zone to add value.

The sales pitch is for a region with a large enterprise zone with generous tax breaks next to an airport that's a short flight to the Gulf, with plenty of water, good soil and a climate that could grow anything. It is certainly not what Helmand has been known for up to now.

Syed Obaidullah Shah, a manager with the VICC construction company, knows the cost of doing business for foreign contractors.

He has had 12 workers targeted and killed, but none recently. He says it is much easier for his workers to travel around.

"I can tell you that things have become much more easy than it was before a couple of years back. The people who initiate investment here - they can now see that there is potential to get more work done here, and they can ease the people's lives here."

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