Hague visits model for prosperous Afghan future

Herat fortress
Image caption Prosperous Herat has been relatively unaffected by the insurgency

When British ministers come to Afghanistan, they usually head for Helmand, where troops are fighting and dying in the war against the Taliban.

But the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has instead visited Herat in the west of the country.

Peaceful and prosperous, it also shares a border with Iran. Even so, Mr Hague says it could be a model for the future of the country.

After a visit to students at Herat University, he explains why he is here.

"This is an example of what can be achieved perhaps in the future, here in Afghanistan," he says.

"Here is a university with lots of bright students, who I've just been talking to. There is a lot of mineral wealth here; there are hundreds of factories here."

Special case

But Herat, one of Afghanistan's most ancient cities, is something of a special case.

Like a great rock, Herat's fortress dominates the city centre. It is so old, and has been destroyed so many times, no-one is really sure who built it first. Perhaps it was Alexander the Great.

It is now being rebuilt after everyone from Genghis Khan to the Soviet invaders wreaked some damage. Ancient cannonballs and live Russian bullets are being excavated from the site.

To help its rebuilding, the American government has donated $500,000 (£329,000).

The mud walls have been replaced by fired bricks and the foundations buttressed. Progress is slow, but worthwhile, says Daud Sidiq, chief architect of the Aga Khan Foundation.

"These craftsmen, we train these people. And now they are happy from their work," he adds.

"I'm asking them when they are making their own houses that they can use the local material, and this Herat style."

Iranian influence

Herat's history is on plain display: mosques are in abundance.

Image caption William Hague says Herat could be used as a model for the whole of Afghanistan

When you enter the bazaars beneath the fortress, it is plain to see how prosperous it also is.

Inside his shop selling refrigerators and air-conditioners, Shri Agha Khurshidi explains what made Herat special.

"I want to tell people that all parts of Afghanistan are not the same," he says. "We have 33 provinces; in some of them you don't hear even the sound of a bullet in a year, but in others it is always fighting."

Herat is one of the most peaceful places in the country. And it receives a lot of help from its neighbour, Iran.

As you drive outside the city, the finest road, perhaps the best road in the country, is the one that leads to Iran.

The closeness of Iran has helped the Pamir motorcycle company thrive. It assembles bikes with parts from Iran and China, and with a few locally-made bits and pieces. Most of the workforce is illiterate.

This factory has grown every single year and now employs 150 men. These opportunities are essential to Afghanistan's future, says Mr Hague.

"This is a country that could do so much better in the world.

"Yes, this area has so many factories, but it could have so many more, with a fully educated and literate population.

He adds: "We have to help to do those things in order for it to be a secure Afghanistan, an Afghanistan where we don't have to send troops."

Employment boost

Part of the extra £200m the UK is giving the country in aid is to help get Afghans back to work.

Image caption Daud Sidiq says building workers at the fortress are happy in their jobs

Employment is essential, say the Pamir factory's owner, Parwiz Fakihiri.

"I think if this factory didn't exist and all these men working here were jobless, they would have been addicted to drugs and might be doing other illegal things like robbery," he explains.

"Such kind of factories can stop people from illegal activities and even from joining the Taliban."

Back at the fortress, they are finishing off a wall in what was the queen's residence.

Through the centuries, the fort has been destroyed eight times; this is its ninth rebuilding. You could say reconstruction is something of a habit here.

The city's security has made it possible, so too its links to its friendly neighbour. Replicating that elsewhere in Afghanistan won't be easy.

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