Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan’s first woman governor, smiles as she recalls how a Taliban commander who styled himself as the “shadow governor” of her province was arrested after a shoot-out in a cave.
The US military had issued wanted posters offering a $10,000 reward for Mullah Borhani’s capture after he began organising attacks in the east of Bamiyan, an oasis of stability in central Afghanistan.
Unlike Taliban “shadow governors” who have created justice and tax systems in southern areas, Mr Borhani had won few friends in a region dominated by the Hazara, who despise the Taliban, before police seized him in August. With her foe in jail in Kabul, Mrs Sarabi has been able to focus on fighting a tougher battle: transforming the province into a haven for visitors beguiled by turquoise crater lakes and the remnants of an ancient Buddhist civilisation.
“It’s my vision to promote Bamiyan as a tourist destination,” Mrs Sarabi said in the provincial capital, a town of mud-walled homes that made global headlines when the Taliban destroyed colossal Buddha statues there in 2001. “Bamiyan people are very open.”
While luring holidaymakers to Afghanistan is an ambitious goal, Bamiyan’s fate will feed a wider debate over how far the west can stabilise the country by pumping in aid and training security forces.
The issue has been complicated by evidence of huge fraud during August’s presidential elections, prompting a partial recount due to be concluded this weekend.
Warning that a decisive effort is needed in the next 12 months to avoid losing the war, General Stanley McChrystal, the senior US officer in Afghanistan, has prescribed a sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy to win Afghan support. In Bamiyan, his antidote is already being tested.
A province of 600,000 people, Bamiyan is rich in treasures from antiquity, but poor in development indicators from literacy to health. Villagers harvest potatoes by hand from gardens watered by irrigation channels fed by snow-melt from the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Conscious of the need to reinforce one of Afghanistan’s few stable regions after years of neglect, the US military has raised its budget for projects in the province to about $40m (€27m, £24m) this year from $8m last year.
A former pharmacist and minister of women’s affairs, Mrs Sarabi has capitalised on her status as the first woman governor to lobby western donors for funds since being appointed in 2005.
“Always men think that they are leaders, they are the commanders, so they can do anything they want,” Mrs Sarabi said.
“If there will be a conflict between two tribes, if I go to them and talk with them, they respect me as a sister, as a mother.”
Mrs Sarabi says 42 per cent of 110,000 pupils in the province are female, the highest rate in the country.
Hopes of enticing large numbers of visitors are less advanced. While some travellers do visit the six lakes at Band-e-Amir, named as Afghanistan’s first national park in May, the date on a tourist guide on sale at Bamiyan’s airstrip is telling. It was one of a batch printed for free distribution in 1977, before the Soviet invasion.
The biggest single contingent of foreign visitors here are 120 New Zealand troops, whose hilltop base overlooks the ruins of an Islamic city destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1221.
Travelling in four-wheel drives rather than armoured personnel carriers, the New Zealanders believe they have built the rapport with locals advocated by Gen McChrystal.
“You have to get out from behind the wire and do life with the people,” says Group Captain Gregg Elliot, their commander.
The paradox, as the commander admits, is that it is hard to tell how far their approach has undermined support for insurgents in a region where the Taliban has always been seen as the enemy. With insecurity rising in once calm parts of north and west Afghanistan, Bamiyan feels like a province under siege.