A Haven of Prosperity in Afghanistan

Students gather outside a 16-room school in Bazarak, the provincial capital.
Students gather outside a 16-room school in Bazarak, the provincial capital. (John Ward Anderson - Twp)
By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 29, 2007

PARAKH, Afghanistan -- Slashed across the side of a rugged mountain like the sign of Zorro, the Z Road started as a simple $59,000 U.S. project to put a radio tower atop a small peak in the Hindu Kush, so people in the remote Panjshir Valley could for the first time pick up commercial radio from Kabul, about 60 dusty, bone-jolting miles away.

After road crews conquered the mountain's 270-foot face last November, other forces took over. By the new year, private companies had extended the road to the next hilltop, two-thirds of a mile away and 640 feet higher, for a bank of cellphone towers. Then came another half-mile extension to the next peak for a TV tower, then plans for a wind farm and, last month, a series of switchbacks down the far side of the range to give villages in the next valley their first road to the outside.

This is the way reconstruction in Afghanistan was supposed to be. A little bit of U.S. pump priming, combined with profit motive and human need, would be harnessed by a grateful, liberated population to transform their lives and country. In the process, the people would become loyal allies in the fight against terrorism.

It hasn't always worked that way. Instead, Afghanistan is besieged by a growing insurgency that is shifting U.S. money and manpower from reconstruction to security, undermining vital road, electricity, school and other projects that are designed to extend the authority of the national government and win hearts and minds.

But in the famed Panjshir Valley -- a remote, sparsely populated mountain region that is almost entirely ethnic Tajik -- an unprecedented synergy among the local government, the people and U.S. soldiers has helped spark a development boom that is modernizing and transforming the valley, which became Afghanistan's 34th province three years ago. Underpinning it all is an unusual sense of calm that has come with the people's success in keeping the Taliban at bay.

When a U.S. reconstruction team recently returned to Forward Operating Base Lion about 10 miles inside the valley, troops parked their military vehicles for the duration of their stay and traveled throughout the province in regular sport-utility vehicles, without body armor and helmets. They often eschewed convoys and went out on missions in single vehicles.

Ambassadors, politicians, NATO and U.S. military officials "all ask the same thing: 'Can we do this in other provinces?' " said Panjshir Gov. Bahlol Bahij. He extols his zero tolerance for opium poppy cultivation and his systems for working with the U.S. military and foreign aid workers and for stopping the spread of the extremist Taliban into his province.

But many aspects of Panjshir make it unique.

Panjshir province is almost entirely Tajik and Sunni Muslim, so the region lacks many of the ethnic, religious and cultural differences that have fueled the insurgency elsewhere in Afghanistan. The province, about 1 1/2 times the size of Rhode Island, has 300,000 residents and is isolated. An indigenous intelligence network with a knowledge of the landscape enabled Panjshir fighters to repel repeated Soviet, mujaheddin and Taliban offenses in the 1980s and '90s and helped this region remain the only unconquered area of Afghanistan.

The fighters were led by national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, the so-called Lion of Panjshir, who was killed in an al-Qaeda suicide bombing two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

Today, nomad sheep herders graze their flocks on the valley floor among rusting Soviet tanks and decrepit armored vehicles. Terraced gardens line the lower slopes, which climb to slate gray mountaintops scarred by foxholes and trenches. Pictures of Massoud peer out from the windows of mud-brick houses, car windshields, billboards and storefronts. Women in all-encompassing sky blue burqas walk along roads with young girls in black dresses and white shawls -- the traditional school uniform in the valley. Irrigation canals feed groves of walnut, almond and mulberry trees and fields of potatoes, beans and grapes.

"This is the safest part of Afghanistan, because the people of Panjshir stick together," said Mansor Azimi Panjshir, 23, a construction worker. "There's new building all over. We have bridges now, wells, new schools, water -- everything looks good."

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