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Kabul Factory Gearing Up to Make Boots

Afghan factory workers make preparations to manufacture boots at the Milli Factory in Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghan factory workers make preparations to manufacture boots at the Milli Factory in Kabul, Afghanistan

Milli Boot Factory in Kabul could be a model for the future of Afghanistan. Its owners have invested millions of dollars developing a sturdy boot with the hope of becoming a supplier to the fledgling Afghan security forces. The family-run company has been around since 1979. The factory illustrates NATO's wider strategy of sustainability - if Afghans have jobs, they won't fight.

For owner Ihsan Saffi, it's a return to what he knows. He started making boots in Afghanistan in 1979. He fled when the Taliban arrived and returned in 2002 to find everything destroyed.

"I want to help my own country," Saffi said. "I want to help my own people. There are many poor people. I want to bring them here and give them jobs."

Saffi employs 450 people at his Kabul Milli Factory, paying them between $400 and $900 per month, which is well above the average wage here. He is hoping he will get a big contract to supply boots to the Afghan military.

The sewing machines are quiet now, but soon the owners hope, 3,000 pairs of boots a day will be produced here. This is not just about getting boots on the ground. This is part of NATO's strategy for getting Afghanistan back on its feet.

All over the country, Afghans are working on projects to help build their country's infrastructure. Ten billion dollars a year is earmarked to develop Afghanistan's security forces. NATO officials say they are trying to spend as much of that as possible inside Afghanistan.

Colonel John Ferrari says the policy seems to be working. "By letting the local economy and the local vendors know that we are going to be buying things locally, manufacturing has increased," he said.

At the boot factory, the owners are so worried about their competitors that they didn't want their new modern injection molding machine shown in full. They think it will give them an edge over other businesses. Improving the quality of the boots was a requirement to be able to bid for the military contract. Afghanistan's hot and harsh terrain can be hard on footwear. And NATO wants boots that will last.

At Kabul Milli, the owners have invested about $4 million in improvements, new machinery and expanding the warehouse so there's somewhere to store all the boots. Saffi says it is worth it.

"If every businessman invested here and opened a factory, people would have work," he says, "and everyone knows if people had jobs, there wouldn't be fighting. Everyone would be busy earning money for their children, so they wouldn't fight."

That sums up much of NATO's strategy for Afghanistan: Get Afghans working so they can sustain their own country. Its success will depend on whether people like this bootseller of Kabul prosper.