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Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 10 News List

Coca-Cola opens new plant in Kabul

MIXED REACTION While the Afghan president hailed the investment as a catalyst for growth, a local resident said that hospitals, not soft drinks, are what the country needs


The sniper perched on the gleaming Coca-Cola factory's roof, peering through his gun sight over Kabul's bullet-pocked suburbs, searching for any hint of a terrorist threat.

In the red Coke flag-festooned car park below, a US sniffer dog handler barked commands at journalists being frisked by Afghan security agents for weapons.

In strife-ridden Afghanistan, this is how even the most positive of events -- like Sunday's opening of a new US$25 million Coca-Cola production plant -- are handled. Even more so when pro-US Afghan President Hamid Karzai is in attendance.

But according to Karzai, more business openings and investments of this kind will lead to a downturn in Afghanistan's violence, which has reached its deadliest proportions since US-led forces toppled the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden.

"This is another step forward for economic growth, self-sufficiency and better living standards for Afghanistan," Karzai said in his inau-guration speech inside the plant, where 350 people have got new jobs.

Across town in the bombed-out building that housed Coke's last production plant in Kabul, Jomaa Gul saw it another way.

Basic needs

What Afghanistan needs now is investment not to make soft drinks, but for new hospitals and to end the violence, said Gul, whose father worked at the 40-year-old plant before it was ravaged by artillery fire in the 1992-1996 civil war, which killed more than 50,000 people in Kabul.

The younger Gul now lives with his and four other families in the ruins of what was once the administration block at the plant located behind west Kabul's bomb-ravaged Dar Laman Palace.

"But now we have no running water, no electricity and no sanitation," said Gul, 34, as he kicked a dust-covered 20-year-old glass Coca-Cola bottle through a patch of weeds in the loading bay where trucks once took the soft drink away. "Hospitals and security are more worthy investments for US$25 million than a soft-drink plant.''

Karzai praised the plant's Afghan owner, wealthy Dubai-based businessman Habibullah Gulzar, for building the state-of-the-art facility, which can produce 15 million 24-bottle cases of the soft drink annually.

The Afghan president said he hoped the new Coke plant would serve as a catalyst for further private investment to boost his country's ailing economy, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid.

Gulzar had for years a distribution deal with Coca-Cola to be the sole importer of its soft drinks into Afghanistan. But he decided last year to invest the money to build a plant and make the product in his native country.

He acknowledged the dangers that exist in the country, borne out by Friday's car bombing in the capital which killed 16 people including two US soldiers and a warning by Americans that a suicide bombing cell was at large in Kabul primed to target foreign forces.

Building skills

"There is a security problem, I cannot hide that, but the future is bright," Gulzar said. "My first priority is how we can build up the skill of the people, because once the employment comes to the country and there is economic growth, peace and security will follow."

Coke's Turkey-based regional manager, Selcuk Erden, said the multinational thought long and hard about returning to Afghanistan, particularly as Coca-Cola could be seen as an symbolic US target for terrorists.

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