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U.S. Plans to Plug Afghans' Porous Border

Los Angeles Times, Dec. 9 2002

A checkpoint chain is among projects offered to private investors. But security concerns are still keeping some contractors away.

By Chris Kraul Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan -- To slow the flow of illicit drugs, terrorists and contraband into and out of Afghanistan, the United States is planning to finance the construction and maintenance of 177 checkpoints staffed by a 12,000-strong border police unit, officials said Sunday.

The plan came to light at an investment conference sponsored by the U.S. Embassy at which officials dangled hundreds of millions of dollars in prospective supply contracts and construction projects before a group of local and foreign businesspeople in hopes of spurring interest in Afghanistan's reconstruction and of boosting the economy.

Maj. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry described the construction and supply of a border checkpoint chain as a "guaranteed market." The general, who is in charge of the U.S. military's training of a new Afghan army, did not say how the border police unit would be staffed.

Col. Jesse Munoz of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the checkpoints would include offices, sleeping quarters and, in some cases, clinics, and would cost an average of $300,000. A contract to build the checkpoints could be awarded as early as April, and they could be in operation in two to three years, Munoz said.

In an interview later Sunday, Arif Noorzai, Afghanistan's minister of frontiers and tribal affairs, said he had not been formally apprised of the U.S. plan. But he applauded a crossing network as vital to fighting terrorism and protecting the country's economy and environment.

The checkpoints might also give President Hamid Karzai's government a way to collect more duties on imports and bolster its revenue base. Poor customs collection is one of many reasons the government has had to rely on international donors to finance four-fifths of its budget.

Smuggling is rife at border crossings, especially along the heavily traveled frontier with Pakistan. So are exports of illegally cut Afghan timber, Noorzai said. And the U.S. is concerned about the free flow of Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants from Pakistan along Afghanistan's southeastern border, where clashes between those fighters and U.S. forces have been frequent.

The U.S. has repeatedly stressed that Afghanistan's recovery and pacification after decades of strife depend on the involvement of private investors, both domestic and foreign, in the reconstruction process. U.S.-funded public works projects represent some of the prime investment opportunities.

"Security and reconstruction go hand in hand," U.S. Ambassador William B. Taylor, special emissary for donor assistance in Afghanistan, told those at the meeting Sunday, including two dozen local businesspeople.

But businesspeople here and officials of various governments say private investors continue to postpone committing money to Afghanistan because of security concerns, a lack of technically trained personnel and delays in the delivery of international aid to finance infrastructure improvements.

"When we first came here, we were optimistic. But things have slowed down quite a bit," said Robert Mojave, regional manager of Dynatek Corp., a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of pumps and generators.

More hopeful was Shah Aqa Massoud, president of Marammat Construction of Kabul, who recently returned to this country after years of exile in the Netherlands.

"We are very optimistic about the future, and we will participate regardless of the difficulties prevailing in the country now," Massoud said.

Perhaps the single biggest business opportunity touted Sunday involved the U.S. military's training of a new Afghan national army numbering 70,000 soldiers. Over the next few years, the U.S. plans to solicit bids worth up to hundreds of millions of dollars to help house and supply that force. The first portion, a $16.1-million contract to build a barracks, will be formally awarded next Monday, Munoz said.

Eikenberry added that the military will soon be in the market for 20,000 pairs of boots and 40,000 uniforms.

"We're not talking high-tech material," the general told the group. "Our strong feeling is that equipment should be provided by Afghans and [the money] go back into the Afghan economy."

Information on construction and supply contracts for Afghanistan being solicited by the U.S. government can be found on the Web site www.export.gov/afghanistan.


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