Afghan EU envoys push private sector in Herat

It was an away-day with a difference -- 13 European ambassadors travelling from Kabul to the western city of Herat to prove that business can be conducted outside the Afghan capital.

European Union ambassadors normally meet once a week in Kabul, but on Sunday they took their show on the road, flying together to Herat and holding talks with local leaders in one of Afghanistan's most successful regions.

EU countries contribute more than $1.3 billion a year to agriculture and health projects as well as political development in Afghanistan, where the economy remains fragile 12 years after the fall of the Taliban.

But pressure is now growing to foster a stable, self-sufficient business environment that can spread prosperity and forestall a return to extremism after 100,000 international combat troops pull out next year.

"This is our first ever 'heads of mission' visit outside Kabul and we want to travel to demonstrate our long-term commitment," Vygaudas Usackas, the EU ambassador, said.

"We are aware of the real facts on the ground, and we want to discover more about how Afghanistan can attract more foreign investment, as well as educate youth and improve human rights."

Along with the 13 ambassadors were seven deputy envoys representing other EU nations, providing a major security challenge with each diplomat watched over by their own close protection team guard.

Despite continuing security issues, Herat is seen as flagship province in Afghanistan, attracting investment and building on its strengths in agriculture, mining and trade links with neighbours Iran and Turkmenistan.

On Sunday, the ambassadors held talks at an Italian-run military base before taking helicopters to a government venue on a hillside overlooking Herat city to meet the provincial governor, officials and entrepreneurs.

Herat governor Daoud Saba told them that the international community and Kabul government had to move fast to meet the needs of rapidly-emerging businesses.

"We have to realise that the business community and private sector don't have time for us to move slowly, change our rules and regulations and come up with packages to facilitate their work," he said.

"Bureaucracy can wait, but not the private sector -- and we believe that without the private sector, the country cannot stand up."

Discussions focused on the regular topics of overcoming foreign investors' fears about Afghanistan's future, tackling corruption and holding successful elections next year.

But Italian ambassador Luciano Pezzotti said that taking the debate outside Kabul was an important gesture.

"This was an experiment," he said. "We often stay in Kabul and this is a sign to the population outside the capital that the international community will stay committed.

"It is important to show Afghanistan is a place where normal business happens, and being able to do this trip now shows that security has improved."

All roads surrounding the meeting venue were closed off and helicopter gunships circled overhead, but Governor Saba stressed that the exceptional security measures were in place only as a precaution.

"Herat could be a model for the future of the country in terms of development, private sector investment and engagement with civil society and women," Saba said.

"Of course there are risks we have to consider," he said. "The moment we began our transition to full Afghan control we noticed investors became more interested. We are pleased to get that message out to visitors."