Factory, coal mine show connections matter most in Afghan business

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By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers, Nov. 14, 2010

KARKAR COAL MINE, Afghanistan — Shovel-wielding miners in rags and plastic shoes, some with the protruding ribs and work-ravaged pallor of labor camp prisoners, toil deep inside this remote northern mountain, harvesting coal for some of the country’s most powerful businessmen.

Outside, other workers tip coal-filled trolleys down a hill, cloths tied about their faces against choking black dust. On the heap below, a barefoot boy separates large lumps by hand while colleagues toss shovelfuls of chips into a truck. Goats nose for weeds in tangles of moldering steel cables and rails.

The coal dug here fires Afghanistan’s only working cement factory, a strategic industrial asset 150 miles north of Kabul that should be supplying building material for much of the country, generating cash and jobs and improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest people.

Instead, the Ghori Cement Factory and the nearby Karkar Coal Mine have become symbols of the corruption, nepotism and mismanagement that pervade President Hamid Karzai’s government, hobble the U.S. effort to rebuild Afghanistan, and fuel the Taliban-led insurgency that now threatens both sites.

“The factory was handed over to people who are a mafia,” Baghlan Governor Abdul Majid, a Karzai appointee, told McClatchy in an interview in Pul-I-Khumri, the provincial capital, last month.

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