Herati Divisions Over US Consulate Plan

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Some say diplomatic mission will bring risk of attacks, but others hopeful it will boost city. By Shapoor Saber and Mohammad Isaaq Quraishi in Herat (ARR No. 351, 29-Jan-10)Heraits have expressed a mixture of nervousness and hope about plans by the United States to open a consulate in their city, the main population centre in western Afghanistan.

Some fear a beefed-up American presence will become a magnet for insurgent activity, while others believe it will bring much-needed economic benefits.

For those who are concerned about the proposed consulate, there appears to be some justification. Just three weeks after the US ambassador signed a three-year lease on the planned premises, a Five-Star hotel, attackers lobbed a rocket at the building, damaging the third floor and sending the few remaining guests running for cover.

The January 8 attack will not derail the US plans, officials say, but the residents of Herat are waiting anxiously for further developments.

The US embassy in Kabul first announced its intention to open a mission in Herat in August. At the time, Assistant Chief of Mission Joseph Mussomeli told Radio Liberty that the move was designed to reaffirm the US commitment to Afghanistan.

“To be very honest, our relationship and our interest in Afghanistan has not always been enough,” he said. “But once you open up consulates it shows very deeply our close and deep commitment to Afghanistan … It is a way of saying that we’re not leaving.”

America is also planning to open a consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. But US attention may prove to be a mixed blessing for the people of Herat.

The province, just over 100 kilometres from Afghanistan’s western border with Iran, had been relatively peaceful. Over the past year, however, several incidents, from rocket attacks on the airport to bombs targeting NATO troops, have made the situation much more tense.

Some residents say that opening the consulate will only increase the danger.

“The arrival of Americans will turn Herat into a focus for the Taleban and al-Qaeda,” said Reza Sultani, a local sportsman. “We will soon see deaths of our fellow countrymen because of this consulate.”

Located on a hill on the outskirts of Herat, the proposed consulate will occupy prime land that straddles two of the city’s main parks,Takht-e-Safar and Bagh-e-Millat.

Many of the recreational facilities in Herat are centred around the parks,and locals are afraid that they will no longer be allowed to go there for relaxation.

Sharifa, who was playing with her children in Bagh-e-Millat, said, “Wedding parties come here,” she said “Newlyweds use it. But if the consulate is here it will become insecure.”

According to Mohammad Rafiq Shahir, head of the Experts' Council of Herat, the January 8 the attack was a message from the Taleban to the US.

“Such actions will never deter the United States from opening its consulate,” he said. “But the armed opposition will do whatever it can.”

The hotel was considered the safest place to stay by foreigners coming to the beautiful, ancient city for a visit.

This is most likely why it caught the eye of the US embassy. “Since last spring, when we first identified properties that might serve as a future US consulate, the Five-Star hotel property literally stood out as the most logical and usable space to lease until we could buy land and build a more permanent consulate compound,” Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said at the lease-signing ceremony on December 16.

“Signing this lease today brings us one big step closer to opening the consulate in Herat. Let everyone understand: our aim in Afghanistan and in establishing US consulate Herat is to promote peace and security, prosperity and stability.”

But so far it has had the opposite effect. On January 8, unknown attackers shot several BM1 rockets at the hotel, one of which penetrated the third floor of the seven-storey structure. Police say that no one was injured, but windows were broken and ten rooms sustained severe damage.

Mahmud Dost, the manager of the hotel, said that it would cost more than 50,000 US dollars to repair the damage.

Taleban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack.

There were few guests in the hotel at the time. Although the US embassy had not yet taken control of the hotel, it had been losing customers ever since the lease was signed, Dost said.

Since the rocket attack, the hotel stands virtually empty while it waits for its new tenants.

It is still unclear when the consulate will open. According to Herat mayor Mohammad Salim Taraki, the US was supposed to take possession of the hotel on January 16.

So far it has not occupied the premises or made any changes to the physical plan, in part because of a contractual dispute between the city of Herat and the owner, he said.

The US will pay a monthly rent of 30,000 dollars, Taraki added.

Embassy officials are adamant that the attacks will not affect their plans.

“The United States condemns the January 8 rocket attack on the Five-Star hotel in Herat,” said a statement issued by the Kabul embassy. “This violent terrorist act will not deter us from opening our consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif or from our long-term commitment to the people of Afghanistan.”

Shahir pointed out that the Taleban are not the only party opposed to the opening of a new US office in Herat.

“Iran is also not happy about this consulate,” he said. “They do not want an official agency of the US government just 100 kilometres from their border. The United States is an opponent of Iran.”

Ahmad Ghani Khesrawi, a political expert and a lecturer at Herat University, agreed, “The most important issue for the Americans here is Herat’s closeness to Iran. Iran is America’s opponent and competitor. The Americans will be better able to observe Iran."

But Brad Hanson, a representative of the US Agency for International Development, USAID, insisted the consulate posed no threat to Iran. “We are not against Iran,” he insisted. “The United States does not want to harm the ties between Afghanistan and Iran.”

The Iranian consulate in Herat has not issued a formal statement on the US plans to open a representational office in the city.

The proposed consulate does have its fans, however. The increased American attention will raise Herat’s profile and attract development projects and investment, say hopeful Heratis.

“The existence of this consulate is an important necessity,” said Khalil Ahmad, editor of the independent Radio Faryad in Herat. “It will ensure Herat’s strategic pre-eminence over other provinces.

"It will benefit Herat’s economy. Herat has been marginalised because of discrimination from the centre. All of its income goes to Kabul, while no attention is paid to reconstruction of the province. The establishment of the US consulate will restore Herat to its former position of importance.”

Under governor and strongman Ismail Khan, who ruled Herat and much of western Afghanistan in the 1990s and following the fall of the Taleban in 2001, Herat was in a privileged position.

It had enormous revenues from border trade with Iran and Turkmenistan, and kept the bulk of it in the province, building up the infrastructure. But when Khan transferred to Kabul in 2004 to become minister for water and energy, Herat lost its status.

According to Khadija Akbari, a student at the Herat Technical Institute, the consulate is a positive development for the people of Herat. The bad press the plan is receiving could be due to Iranian influence, she suggested.

“We have very good relations with the world’s superpower, and we can improve those ties on a provincial level,” she said. “We do not want to have conflict with our international partners over the Iranians.”

Shapoor Saber and Mohammad Isaaq Quraishi are IWPR trainees in Herat.

IWPR builds democracy at the frontlines of conflict and change through the power of professional journalism. IWPR programs provide intensive hands-on training, extensive reporting and publishing, and ambitious initiatives to build the capacity of local media. Supporting peace-building, development and the rule of law, IWPR gives responsible local media a voice. IWPR works in Afghanistan, Caucasus, Central Asia, The Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, The Philippines, Southeastern Europe, Syria, Uganda, Southern Africa and Zimbabwe. for more information about IWPR please visit www.iwpr.net

This is originally posted at http://www.iwpr.net/EN-arr-f-359803 and IWPR - Institute for War & Peace is responsible for the content.

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