High in the mountains of central Afghanistan is an area of relative peace and majestic beauty — a chain of six lakes so vibrantly blue that they are clearly visible in satellite photos.
It's called Band-e-Amir, and this year it was turned into Afghanistan's first national park after the U.S. government spent nearly $1 million to help establish the landmark.
But there are no paved roads to the 228-square-mile park. All of Bamiyan province, which is roughly the size of Connecticut, has just slightly more than 1 mile of paved roadway and no reliable electricity. Some residents question whether spending money for a remote, hard-to-get-to park was a wise venture in a country fighting a war against Taliban militants.
William Frej, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan, defends the project, saying thousands of Afghans visit the site every year.
"The U.S. commitment to the Afghanistan people has always been seen as a long-term investment in security and democracy," he says. "Like much of the country, road construction in Bamiyan is underway, and our work in Band-e-Amir is a collaborative step in restoring national hope and pride."
Habiba Sarabi, the provincial governor — the first and only woman to lead an Afghan province — has spent years pushing to establish the site as a national park, which had its formal dedication in June.
She says most international aid goes to other areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban has a stronghold. So creating a national park is a way to attract funding to Bamiyan. The park and surrounding tourism businesses that eventually will crop up will create needed jobs, Sarabi explains. The fee charged to enter the park will go toward infrastructure and development of the area.
Community has other issues
Syed Kazim, a community leader, says people here would be better served with more schools and hospitals. He says only one clinic exists for about 20,000 people who live in the mountains.
"During the winter, it takes four to five hours to reach that," he says.
Jawad Wafa, 22, an eco-tourism guide in Bamiyan province, says spending on the park is "like throwing money away. We need a road. We need electricity. We need an airport," Wafa says.
Sarabi answers criticism from community leaders and others by saying, "The park is for their future. It's for their children. We should protect the park. After that, they can have, of course, many other good things like clinics, like schools."
The drive to Band-e-Amir from the Afghan capital of Kabul, 150 miles away, takes as long as 12 hours over rocky roads. Trucks easily overturn, and the talc-like dust of the high desert regularly chokes the air filters of even the heartiest vehicles. The closest city, Bamiyan, is 50 miles away — a three-hour drive.
Amir Foladi, head of Bamiyan's eco-tourism program, which helped set up the park, says at least four local entrepreneurs have bought land to build hotels and businesses near the park. He says bids have gone out to build a campground. Those will bring tourists and service-sector jobs that could provide a livelihood for many poor residents who now depend on subsistence farming.
Foladi says the chain of lakes attracted up to 40,000 Afghans, plus 4,000 foreign tourists, in 2005 and 2006. But visitors dropped off as much as 40% the following year as security concerns increased.
'Victim of its own success'