Coalition forces buy local in Afghanistan

Kabul, October 27:

For the first time since deploying here five years ago, the US-led coalition is drinking Afgha-nistan’s water.

Since the international force arrived in 2001 to topple the Taliban, its thousands of mainly US soldiers have been drinking water from Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan at a cost of $58 million a year, mainly in transport.

But starting this month the water bottles that are as ubiquitous as the soldiers’ guns have been coming from a gleaming new factory in a scruffy industrial park on the outskirts of Kabul.

It is a first for the coalition which imports every other food item that passes the lips of the roughly 10,000 soldiers under its command. Investors say it is also a tentative vote of confidence in Afgh-anistan’s stuttering post-Taliban economy.

The coalition awarded the contract to Afghan Beverage Industries (ABI),

a subsidiary of a Dubai-based company, after testing its water not only for purity but also security against being poisoned.

The move was part of the force’s “Afghan First” initiative launched in March to award more contracts to local suppliers.

Since then, the number of contracts awarded to Afghan-based firms has increased to 86 per cent, from 58 per cent, covering a wide range of services from buying tents to cleaning.

The aim, said coalition deputy commanding general Brigadier William Chambers, is to help “bolster the Afghan economy and build a more self-reliant country”.

The water contract is also a great saving, costing about 600,000 dollars a month, or just over 10 per cent of the cost of importing water.

Next on the shopping list: beverages from the new $25-million Coca-Cola bottling plant that formally opened last month, along with juices and baked goods if they meet US federal and military regulations, said Major David van Bennekum from Afghan First.

The $16-million ABI plant has been running for around three months and employs about 140 people with plans to expand to 240.

This seems tiny beside Afghanistan’s unemployment rate of roughly 30 per cent, but it is an example others can follow, said Hedvig Christine Boserup, project manager for the Peace Dividend Marketplace that links Afghan producers with suppliers, and brought the coalition and ABI together.

“It sends a signal to people in general that local procurement is possible, that there are quality products to be bought in Afghanistan,” she said. This in turn could create jobs in the private sector as the public sector is trimmed back.

“It really is one of the few possibilities to put money back into society and to create employment, particularly in Afghanistan where most of the structural reform is about cutting

the public sector, making the ministries more efficient,” Boserup said.

There are others on board — the luxury Kabul Serena Hotel is buying vegetables from the eastern city of Jalalabad and pomegranates from Kandahar in the south. The 37-nation, 31,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which brings in all its own food, is likely to follow suit, said Captain Stacie Shafran.