KABUL, Afghanistan, (AP) – A sniper on the gleaming Coca-Cola factory’s roof peers through his gun sight over Kabul’s bullet-pocked suburbs, searching for any hint of a terrorist threat.
In a parking lot festooned with red Coke flags, an American dog handler barks commands at journalists being frisked by Afghan security agents.
In strife-ridden Afghanistan, this is how even the most positive of events — like Sunday’s opening of a new $25 million Coca-Cola production plant — are handled. Even more so when pro-U.S. Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends.
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 U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden.
“This is another step forward for economic growth, self-sufficiency and better living standards for Afghanistan,” Karzai said in a speech inside the plant, where 350 people had new jobs.
Across town, Jomaa Gul saw things differently. The unemployed 34-year-old lives in the ruins of what was once the administration block of Coca Cola’s last production plant in Kabul.
Gul’s 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 and installed the Taliban. The younger Gul’s family and four others moved into the bombed-out building because they had no other place to go.
Afghanistan needs new hospitals and an end to violence, not investment for soft drinks, Gul said.
“But now we have no running water, no electricity and no sanitation,” Gul said as he kicked a dust-covered 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 $25 million than a soft drink plant.”
Karzai praised the new plant’s Afghan owner, wealthy Dubai-based businessman Habibullah Gulzar, for building the state-of-the-art factory, 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 in a plant and make the product in his native country.
He acknowledged Afghanistan’s dangers, borne out by the car bombing that killed 16 people, including two U.S. soldiers, in the capital Friday. On Saturday, U.S. officials warned a suicide bombing cell in Kabul was targeting foreign forces.
“There is a security problem, I cannot hide that, but the future is bright,” Gulzar told The Associated Press. “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.”
Coca-Cola thought long and hard about returning to Afghanistan, particularly as the brand could be seen as a symbolic American target for terrorists, said Selcuk Erden, the company’s Turkey-based regional manager.
“Knowing the image worldwide of Coca-Cola as an American icon, we told our local partner that you may be noticed more now than before, but they were very confident,” Erden said.
Richard Norland, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s deputy chief of mission, said the Coke factory opening was a positive step that would create more jobs and prove big multinationals could do business in Afghanistan.
The local company’s close relationship with Coca-Cola Pakistan might also help improve ties between Kabul and Islamabad, which have been accusing each other of not doing enough to fight terrorism.
But Norland acknowledged there was a risk the plant would be seen as a “vestige of the modern or Western world and as a target.”
“Anybody who goes after this operation is only hurting the people of Afghanistan,” he said.