Expanding outward from the Afghan capital and sweeping north past the foreign military base at Bagram, Afghanistan’s Shomali Plain, a bustling and bountiful agricultural hub with one of the safest roads in the country, seems, at first glance, like a peaceful oasis in an otherwise war-ravaged country.
Once one of the most heavily mined areas in the world – the result of more than three decades of continual conflict – the Shomali Plain is now alive with economic activity. The region’s once-destroyed orchards of grapes, figs, peaches and cherries are blooming again, and new roadside businesses have sprung up to serve the heavy flow of traffic to and from the military base, just 40 kilometers north of Kabul. The paved highway that cuts north through the valley from the capital is crowded with commuters, traders, and fuel-tankers bound for the base.
Yet as fighting between American and NATO forces and anti-government insurgents intensifies throughout the country, the relative calm in Shomali, the heartland of Parwan Province, may prove to be a short-lived aberration.
Taliban-led insurgents are making inroads into Shomali from nearly all sides, according to Afghan and American officials, and locals say they fear the foreign troop presence at Bagram – the largest military base in the country – provides a false sense of both security and economy.
“I have lived here [in Shomali] for five years, and the area is safe now because the foreign troops are here,” says Najibullah, 21, who owns a mobile phone shop in the bustling bazaar, known for contraband, outside the base. “But once they leave, it will no longer be like this. There will be fighting and we will all have to leave.”
Bagram serves as the engine for local economic development, employing as many as 5,000 locals, American officials say. “So many Afghans from this area work at the base,” says Omaid Khan, a 15-year-old Shomali resident who runs his father’s convenience store, situated opposite the base. “They [base employees] come out here and use their salary to buy things from my store. It helps a lot, and we are happy.”
According to a 2007 report by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), medium-sized industries and other small and medium-sized enterprises in the engineering and warehousing sectors are expanding in Parwan, mainly to serve business and construction at Bagram, which during the Taliban era was a ghost town.
The HALO Trust, a UK-based humanitarian mine clearance organization, says approximately 72,000 Afghans have returned to the area immediately surrounding the base since 2001; at least 200,000 were displaced by fighting amid civil warfare in the 1990s. The government says the province is home to 600,000 now, though no reliable census has been conducted for decades.
Despite economic growth in the area around Bagram, just half of men and one-fifth of women in Parwan are literate, according to the Afghanistan Congressional Communications Hub, a support service providing information on Afghanistan to US members of Congress. Only 25 percent of the population has access to electricity, the US government body says.
Even more worrisome, locals say, is the recent infiltration of Taliban-led insurgents into the area. Safety and prosperity do not seem to extend beyond Shomali’s borders – and locals fear that the security gains of recent years will be lost as soon as foreign troops leave in 2014.
Immediately south and southeast of Bagram, on the other side of the mountain range that divides Parwan and neighboring Kapisa province, is “Taliban territory,” aid workers say. A former Afghan army officer familiar with the area confirms that Taliban fighters are already “in control” of areas just to the east of Bagram, especially after dark.
A senior US military adviser at Bagram, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says insurgents are currently implementing a long-term, coordinated plan to surround the capital, and that there is definitely a higher level of insurgent activity in the areas around Parwan in recent years. In May, Taliban fighters launched a complex attack on Bagram that killed one US contractor and injured four soldiers.
Forty-four-year-old Asidullah was a young farmer when he left Shomali for Iran in 1998, but now he runs a Bagram-area store stocked with combat boots, sunglasses, protein powder and other goods popular with foreign soldiers.
He says his small business is prosperous, and his family’s land elsewhere in the Shomali is growing grapes once again, but his relatives remain wary. “The security is still good, but it is getting worse,” Asidullah says. “We know where the Taliban are and they are waiting. Once the Americans leave, all of this will be theirs again.”
Erin Cunningham is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.