Officials from the Helmand branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MoAIL) announced on Monday that an agriculture project costing upwards of $100 million was under way in the province and would hopefully be completed within three months.
The officials plugged the initiative as an opportunity for residents to turn away from violence that has plagued the province, traditionally a hotspot for insurgent activity, and instead focus on peaceful and productive means of improving their lives.
Abdullah Ahmadzai, the MoAIL's provincial head, said that the project was already started in 11 districts of Helmand. He said so far saffron corms had been distributed to 380 farmers, chemical fertilizer and seeds given to 7,400 others and livestock equipment and housing facilities provided across the province.
"The goal is to bring jobs in agriculture to create changes in the lives of Helmand residents," Mr. Ahmadzai said. "I am not a political man, but I can see security issues are caused by the lack of jobs, especially amongst the youth."
Mr. Ahmadzai encouraged insurgents to join the peace process and said the MoAIL would make provisions available for them to live peaceful and prosperous lives.
"We have a plan to create 550 gardening plots available to those who renounce violence and join the peace process," he said.
The MoAIL office in Helmand has formulated a longer-term, five year agriculture programme it plans to implement. They claimed the programme would dramatically improve security and economic conditions in Helmand.
Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MoAIL)said Saturday that saffron cultivation has spread from 20 provinces to 26 in the past year. While the Ministry reported Herat as the most productive of the saffron cultivating provinces, officials recognized an increase in productivity across the board.
Abbas Basir, the head of the Office of the Second Vice-President, announced on Thursday that orders had been issued to seal the Hairatan Port refinery owned by Ghazanfar Group while the a team investigates accusations against the company for unfair trade practices.
Earlier this week, President Hamid Karzai charged his Second-Vice President, Mohammad Karim Khalili, with investigating and resolving the controversy that erupted the week before when the Association of Oil Importers (AOI), along with a group of 21 other oil importing companies, accused Ghazanfar Group of unfair trade practices. The accusers claimed Ghazanfar of adulterating imported semi-crude oil by treating it with stabilizers, all under the pretext of refinement, which then allowed the company to charge prices that undercut the market.
The Afghan Chamber of Commerce & Industries (ACCI) said that the semi-refined crude oil known as "Premagon" is imported from Turkmenistan and was banned for years in Afghanistan until Ghazanfar built its refinery in Hairatan Industrial Park in northern Balkh province. The primary basis of the accusation against Ghazanfar is the belief that the Hairatan refinery is incapable of properly processing the semi-refined crude oil the company imports. ACCI officials have claimed that Russia is the only country that has the facility to process semi-refined crude oil, suggesting that Ghazanfar is unable to refine the thousands of tons of oil it is importing in the manner it claims to be.
Nevertheless, Ghazanfar officials categorically denied the validity of the accusations brought against them, and said they would cooperate with the government if it wished to send inspectors to their facility.
Mr. Basir said on Thursday that an investigative delegation had been formed and would be heading for the refinery in Hairatan on Saturday. Until their investigation is complete, the Second-Vice President's office mandated that the facility's operations be halted.
"A special team comprised of representatives from security institutions, the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, the Ministry of Finance and several other offices have been assigned the task to seal the refinery of Ghazanfar Group until the investigative team completes its investigation," Mr. Basir said.
Meanwhile, Al-Hajj Mohammad Ibrahim Ghazanfar, Chairman of the Ghazanfar Group, strongly criticized the selection process used to form the team that would investigate his facility. Mr. Ghazanfar urged the authorities to form a team made up of more neutral individuals.
"It is a good move that government has set-up a commission, however, the formation of the commission was not done in the right manner – there is a businessman who himself is a claimant," said Mr. Ghazanfar. "We demand the government assign professional and technical people to carry out the investigations."
According to petroleum experts, the type of adulterated oil Ghazanfar is accused of producing is highly toxic for the environment.
In response to the allegations launched against them, Ghazanfar officials said that the oil refinery in question was set-up in accordance with international standards. The Group added that so far, the refinery has refined 1,124 tons of semi-refined crude oil and has sold it in the local market.
Two months back the Council of Ministers (CoM) granted a license to Ghazanfar for importing semi-refined crude oil. ACCI officials said that Ghazanfar is permitted to import over 500,000 tons of semi-refined crude oil as per the Council of Ministers' decision and a license issued by the Ministry of Commerce and Industries (MoCI).
ACCI officials have previously claimed that the lack of effective monitoring system by the government on the import of crude oil and hasty government decisions are some of the reasons that enabled the present controversy to arise.
The Afghan Ministry of Public Works (MoPW) on Thursday said that a foreign company would soon begin an assessment the Afghan leg of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan-Turkmenistan railway project.
The MoPW refused to reveal the name of the company, which just recently won the bid to survey to project, until the Asian Development Bank (ADB) had vetted and approved the firm for contracting. The company's documents were sent to the ADP office in the Philippines this week.
"The Asian Development Bank has always helped Afghanistan in carrying out several infrastructural projects," said Nurgul Mangal, the Deputy Technical Minister of the MoPW. "The Bank has committed to fund a part of the project, and the assessment of will begin soon after the firm is approved."
Mr. Mangal said that his Ministry tentatively approved the foreign company to evaluate the technical and financial modalities of the Afghan section of the transnational railway construction following a competitive bidding process.
The 550 KM railway line is intended to be completed in a span five years. The entire project is estimated to cost approximately $960 million, much of which will be provided by the ADB.
In addition to the Afghanistan-Tajikistan-Turkmenistan railway project, recently, President Karzai and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif agreed to establish a railway line between their two nations to better facilitate travel, trade and commerce.
Fazlullah Wahidi, the Governor of western Herat province, announced on Monday that the province's main airport would be reconstructed with financial support from Italy and Spain.
The comprehensive renovation of Herat International Airport is expected to cost somewhere between four and seven million dollars, but the contract is not yet solidified.
Governor Wahidi said that he already talked with officials from the Italian Embassy, and on his surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, the Prime Minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, confirmed that his government would support the airport's reconstruction.
He added that Spanish officials have also agreed to cooperate with Italy in the reconstruction of the airport.
The Herat International Airport, despite its name, does not support international flights. It is only a hub for daily flgihts to and from Kabul. However, with the new reconstruction, it is expected that the Airport would begin servicing commercial international flights.
"The reconstructed Herat International Airport will have a new runway and standard facilities that an international airport needs. We will also start work on service facilities for passengers and equipment needed for flight control towers to work at night," Mr. Wahidi said.
The Herat airport is one of the biggest airports in Afghanistan, located in Gozara district just 13 km from the capital of the province.