Herat is the most important city to Afghanistan economically
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Herat
Far to the west of the ethnic Pashtun heartland of Afghanistan, on the border with Iran, the desert province of Herat is struggling to remain an oasis of peace.
Herat is Afghanistan's most prosperous city, an economic powerhouse home to an increasingly affluent business and trading class. The province raises nearly half of the direct taxes collected nationally.
The mainly Pashtun Taliban insurgents who have vowed to disrupt Thursday's presidential and provincial elections, have no significant presence here.
But during the last few years shifting warlord loyalties have created a volatile situation.
Some warlords previously loyal to the legendary commander, Ismail Khan, known as the Lion of Herat, have turned against the current government.
This is making the many businessmen of Herat nervous.
"Trading is down, and industrial production has stagnated over the past week," says Tooryalai Ghausi, the deputy chief of Herat's Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
"Everyone is waiting for elections to pass peacefully."
Traders at Herat's currency market say people with idle money are buying dollars and euros to avoid a possible fall in the value of the Afghani, the local currency.
Meanwhile, insiders at the city's gold market say jewellers are shifting most of their merchandise to safety in case there are post-election riots about disputed results.
Herat province raises nearly half the direct taxes collected nationally
Herat is an important business city and raises the largest amount of customs revenue for Afghanistan through its two border trading posts with Iran and Turkeministan.
Economic growth was sparked when Afghanistan signed power supply deals with Iran and Turkmenistan five years ago, ensuring a 24-hour power supply in the city of Herat and some surrounding districts.
Today, it has more than 300 active industrial units and nearly 800 in various stages of completion, in all accounting for $2bn (£1.2) worth of investment, says Mr Ghausi.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Thursday's presidential elections
Like its industry, Herat's gold market is also the largest in the country.
Over the decades, money earned from drugs and guns has flowed into this market, as has ransom money and profits earned from smuggling.
Rough estimates worked out by an informed insider put the total gold turnover during 2008 at 3 tonnes.
This entire business and industrial machine is grinding to a halt ahead of the elections. And for good reason.
The businessmen of Herat have suffered greatly in some recent bouts of lawlessness in the region.
"During the last two or three years, about 100 of our members or their relatives have been kidnapped for ransom," says Mr Ghausi.
The trend has eased now, but business circles say tax revenues have fallen by more than $20m (£12m) during the current year.
Less than a year ago, an investigation by the central government found that a senior official of Afghanistan's border security force, Commander Suleman, may have be implicated in some cases of kidnapping.
Instead of confronting the charge, Commander Suleman, a former warlord who had been co-opted by the government of President Hamid Karzai, absconded.
The government had earlier sacked Ghulam Yahya Seoshani, a powerful warlord who had been appointed head of the provincial public works department, saying he had refused to surrender his arms to the government.
Mr Seoshani recently admitted to some local reporters that he had ordered dozens of kidnappings to raise funds for what he called the "Mujahideen's cause".
Both Mr Seoshani and Mr Suleman have since launched several rocket attacks on government installations in Herat.
Police officials believe the activities of these and some other warlords have created openings for Taliban activists from Helmand and the neighbouring southern provinces of Nimroz.
"The Taliban have carried out attacks in some parts of Herat, but the local people are opposed to them and have co-operated with us in chasing them out," says Gen Esmatullah Alizai, the chief of Heart's police force.
But the threat is far from over.
Last week, several rockets were fired at Herat airport, where the main camp of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) is located.
Private security firms are proliferating in Herat due to the rising insecurity
Isaf have blamed Mr Seoshani for the attack, and are currently engaged in an offensive in his native Seoshan region, some 25km south-east of Herat city.
Ahmad Shah Faqiri, the owner of a factory that produces Pamir motorbikes, is upset with this situation.
"I keep private security guards, but I'm not sure it would be enough if Karzai and his challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, fall out with each other over election results and the situation aggravates," he says.
But a gold trader, Haji Abdul Ali Mohammadyan, has reasons to be optimistic.
"As long as Americans are backing the election process, no-one will dare create controversies about it," he says.