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Bamyan province is what officials said they hope the rest of Afghanistan can become. Local businesses are open, men and women stroll around town and children play in the streets. It is as if someone forgot to tell the residents of Bamyan that Afghanistan is statistically one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Operational Coordination Center-East senior adviser, U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Chris Frey of Washington, recently led a delegation to Bamyan province to assess operations at the Bamyan Operational Coordination Center-Provincial.
The Bamyan OCC-P coordinates the activities of Afghan National Security Forces in response to emergencies and natural crisis’ throughout the province.
Currently, members of the OCC-P are working with ANSF units to ensure security for newly developed mining operations and the budding Bamyan tourism industry.
“Economic development is key to the region’s success,” said Frey.
OCC-E commander, Afghan army Brig. Gen. Daud Andurabi said he was happy to visit Bamyan.
“We would like to see how the security transition [to Afghan authority] is progressing,” said Andurabi.
One sign of Bamyan’s success is the presence of Afghan Uniformed Police officers rather Afghan soldiers patrolling the streets, he said.
Despite Bamyan’s beautiful natural setting and current state of security, the area has been no stranger to brutality in the past.
Bamyan City sits in the stately shadows of the once magnificent Bamyan Buddhas. The Taliban regime destroyed both Buddhas, but the enormous niches from which they loomed over Bamyan City still remain. Efforts are ongoing to restore one of the Buddhas to its former glory.
The smaller of the two is covered in scaffolding and being rebuilt through a grant from the government of Japan and the Afghan Ministry of Culture.
There are also hundreds of caves in the cliffs that run parallel to the city. The caves were once used by Buddhist monks. Today, many of the caves are used by local residents as additions to their homes or stables for their animals.
Genghis Khan was also an unwelcome visitor to the province. The ruins of the city he destroyed, known by locals as the “screaming city,” are still here and open to visitors.
“The city got its name when Genghis Khan killed every living thing within its walls,” said Afghan National Police officer, Col. Ahmed Hussien Ibrahimi.
But despite the violence of its past, residents claim Bamyan is now the most secure province in Afghanistan.
“Bamyan is the beginning of security in Afghanistan” said OCC-P Bamyan Commander, Afghan army Brig. Gen. Muhammad Hashim Yaseen. “If we can secure the center, the rest of Afghanistan will follow.”
Senior military adviser, New Zealand army Lt. Col. Hugh McAslan attributes much of the region’s success to the efforts of Gov. Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan’s first and only female governor.
“[Sarabi] is very effective and forward-thinking,” said McAslan. “A lot of our success can be attributed to her leadership and drive.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed Sarabi as governor in 2005.
“[Sarabi] has done a lot to encourage tourism, infrastructure and security,” said USAID Private Sector, gender awareness and women’s empowerment adviser Mary Jae Sushka of Scottsville, Va. “She is also an advocate on gender relations and women’s equality.”
Sarabi is also internationally recognized for her work in women’s education. She beat the odds as a college graduate in an area with woeful female literacy rates and then became a hematologist and a powerful advocate for the education of women.
In an interview offered at the Afghan Embassy in Japan, Sarabi described what led her to become politically active.
“I couldn’t just sit home and do nothing,” said Sarabi. “I changed my profession and became involved in social activities. It was because of the Taliban that I chose this path.”
Her path included political activism, the establishment of underground schools for women during the Taliban regime and her current position as governor.
A tour of Bamyan seems to vindicate Sarabi’s decision to enter the male dominated world of Afghan politics.
The director of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, Richard Prendergast of New Zealand, views the transition from military to civilian control of the PRT as another sign of progress in the region.
“The New Zealand Foreign Ministry took the lead at the PRT about a year ago,” said Prendergrast. “I have an excellent working relationship with Gov. Sarabi. My main focus is on governance and development due to the excellent security situation.”
Prendergrast and Sarabi both see tourism as a potential boon to the nation. They hosted a major tourism conference last month and investors have shown great interest in the area’s natural beauty. Afghan-based Kamair already agreed to offer several flights per week to Bamyan City after the air strip is enlarged.
Photos and story by Capt. Kenneth Stewart