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With New President, Economic Optimisim Returns To Afghanistan

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The uncertainty around Afghanistan's protracted presidential election hit the country's already fragile economy hard. There are estimates that up to $6 billion of business and investment was lost. Vendors and shopkeepers in Kabul say revenue was down 80 percent or more during the election.

But NPR's Sean Carberry reports that now, a few weeks after President Ashraf Ghani took office, some Afghans are seeing signs of budding economic life.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Since Ghani's inauguration, the mood in Kabul feels lighter, and there seems to be a little more electricity in the air. 19-year-old Mohammad Farhad is the owner of a cosmetics shop here.

MOHAMMAD FARHAD: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: He says things were terrible during the bitterly contested election. Many Afghans feared another civil war and weren't investing or spending money, but Farhad says business is better and things are looking up.

FARHAD: (Foreign language spoken).

CARBERRY: We are hopeful for the future, he says.

Haji Khan Mohammad Baz is head of the Money Changer Union in Kabul. He says that since Ghani's inauguration, business at the Money Exchange Market has improved greatly.

HAJI KHAN MOHAMMAD BAZ: (Through translator) We are optimistic because the government is signaling that it will eliminate corruption and bring good governance.

CARBERRY: He cautions, though, that it's important for people to be patient.

BAZ: (Through translator) It would be unfair if we expect lots of changes from the new government immediately, but things seem to be heading in the right direction.

CARBERRY: Other vendors we spoke with are less optimistic. Some say they're not seeing any changes yet. They say business is still in the tank, and they don't expect to see much change until after the winter, if at all. Atiqullah Nusrat is the CEO of Afghanistan's Chamber of Commerce. He says things are already changing.

ATIQULLAH NUSRAT: As soon as the new government was formed and the bilateral security agreement between the Afghanistan and USA was signed, that really gave a big hope to the business community.

CARBERRY: The security agreement means some 15,000 foreign troops and the money that comes with them will stay in Afghanistan after the end of the year. Nusrat says he's been meeting with Afghans who had taken money out of the country during the election. They now want to reinvest. He's also been meeting with foreign businessmen who are now exploring opportunities in Afghanistan.

NUSRAT: But of course, they're still waiting for something to see in practice.

CARBERRY: He says businessmen want to see concrete legal reforms, reduced corruption and also efforts to combat the growth of robberies and kidnapping of businessmen.

NUSRAT: The private sector - the businesses are like birds. Wherever they feel safe, they put their nests there.

CARBERRY: Nusrat believes President Ghani, a former World Bank official and former finance minister, is focused on creating a safe and healthy nesting ground here. He says that was never a priority for former President Hamid Karzai. But he says Ghani will have to live up to his campaign promises.

NUSRAT: So let's see what kind of cabinet is going to come up. This is also one of the big questions.

CARBERRY: But bringing in competent ministers is just one of many steps needed to transform one of the poorest countries in the world. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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