Barrier business booms as Afghan security worsens

KABUL Mon Nov 9, 2009 8:36am EST

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KABUL (Reuters) - Three years ago, Nosair Tawakali's uncle from a village north of Kabul looked around at the deteriorating security in the Afghan capital, saw many more foreign troops and had an idea for a business.

Barriers. Concrete blast barriers.

Tawakali and his uncle set up the Sultan Sohrab Construction Co. on a road north of the Kabul airport, making blast walls from concrete poured into moulds around steel reinforcement bars.

Other relatives from the same village also set up in the same business on neighboring plots of land.

Today, a kilometer-long stretch of the road is lined with family concrete barrier businesses, stacked as far as the eye can see with row upon row of freshly made, 2-meter-wide wall sections, like tombstones in a vast graveyard for giants.

With security worsening and tens of thousands of American troops arriving this year, business has been brisk.

Tawakali and his uncle normally sell 100-200 sections of wall a month. The wholesale price for a single 3.5-meter-high section is $550.

They had their biggest month when a new brigade of U.S. troops arrived at the beginning of this year, ordering 500 sections of 1.5 meter-high walls for a base in Logar province.

Business looked busiest at neighboring Eagle Desert Construction Co., where a dozen laborers were using a crane to hoist barriers onto a brightly painted truck for delivery.

Concrete blast walls are not yet as ubiquitous in Afghanistan as they are in Iraq, where U.S. forces stacked them around most Baghdad neighborhoods in a bid to quell sectarian violence.

But that is changing quickly. Barriers have sprouted like weeds over the past year in central Kabul, where a Baghdad-style "green zone" has grown up around diplomatic and government districts.

The walls are effective.

After a suicide car bomb struck the Indian embassy last year, killing 58 people, a wall was built down the middle of the street. When bombers hit the same location last month, the newly fortified embassy was largely spared, but an unprotected shopping center across the street was wrecked and 17 Afghans died.

The United Nations pulled hundreds of its foreign staff out of Afghanistan last week after five were killed by suicide bombers. It says it will bring back as many as it can, but only after building more secure places for them to live.

The big money in the wall business is in contracts for NATO's 109,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), buying barriers in bulk as it nearly doubled in size this year due to an increase in the U.S. contingent from 32,000 to 67,000.

U.S. President Barack Obama is now in the final stages of considering a request from his commander, General Stanley McChrystal, to send tens of thousands more troops next year.

Tawakali said he has no idea if more Americans are coming. But if they do, the Sultan Sohrab Construction Co. will have the concrete ready.

"If ISAF need barriers, we will build them," he said.

"Maybe they will come. We hope."

(Editing by Paul Tait)