Afghan Governor Has Big Plans for Lonely Province

Nuristan's new provincial capital, Parun. i i

Nuristan's new provincial capital, Parun, is being built from the ground up. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR. hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR.
Nuristan's new provincial capital, Parun.

Nuristan's new provincial capital, Parun, is being built from the ground up.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR.
Nuristan Governor Tamim Nuristani and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Sam Papparo i i

Nuristan Gov. Tamim Nuristani reviews development projects with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Sam Paparo, the head of the provincial reconstruction team. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR
Nuristan Governor Tamim Nuristani and U.S. Navy Cmdr. Sam Papparo

Nuristan Gov. Tamim Nuristani reviews development projects with U.S. Navy Cmdr. Sam Paparo, the head of the provincial reconstruction team.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR

There are a lot of things that make Nuristan unique among Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

Many of its jagged mountains are blanketed in fir trees, making this northeastern province look more like Montana than a place in Afghanistan. And its people, scattered among isolated villages, have their own language.

But perhaps most unusual in Nuristan these days is its governor, Tamim Nuristani.

Plans for Parun

Parun is the provincial capital of Nuristan, but there's not much to see. At least not yet. Workers hammer away at a new police barracks next to a new mosque with a tin dome. A few wood-and-stone structures along Parun's lone road house a restaurant and small stores.

But Gov. Nuristani — one of the few people who live in Parun — sees a lot more happening here than meets the eye.

"We are right now working ... to have a small city built on the other side with everything — and maybe about 20,000 people, houses and apartments to support the government side," Nuristani says. "They are working on the plan. Maybe few months it's going to be ready."

The 50-year-old governor says Parun — the first city in Nuristan — is only the beginning for a province where residents farm and raise goats to survive. His five-year goal is for Nuristan to be a destination for Afghan and foreign tourists.

Nuristani says visitors will be able to go white-water rafting during the summer months. In the winter, they would ski at the resorts he wants to build. Rounding out his dream for Nuristan is a boom in local businesses dealing in the region's famous wood carvings and gemstones.

"But right now, we have to build all the roads, and first sector (sic) power and telecommunication to get the people here. And security is important for us — to have security," he says.

Securing the Area a Difficult Task

Security is not easy to come by in this province that shares an under-patrolled border with Pakistan. A border official says it is used by militants.

Last week, an American platoon was ambushed by the Taliban near the border. Six U.S. and three Afghan soldiers were killed. More were wounded.

Nuristani says he has tried unsuccessfully to get his government to send an Afghan battalion here to secure the province.

He has been more successful in persuading Americans to spend millions of dollars to develop his province. They relate well to the Afghan governor — a governor who also happens to be an American.

"He was raised very much in the Nuristan tradition, but he also has been imbued with all of the Western values and he has real good sense of the possible," says Navy Cdr. Sam Paparo, who heads the U.S.-led provincial reconstruction team in Nuristan. "For what this government of Afghanistan is looking to achieve, I think he is uniquely qualified."

A Life in Politics

Born to a prominent family, Nuristani says he grew up around politics.

His father was a mayor of Kabul. But the communists overthrew Afghanistan's government in 1978 and threw his father in prison. Nuristani and the rest of the family fled to New Jersey in 1980.

Nuristani says he drove a cab in New York for a while and opened a fried chicken restaurant in Brooklyn. In 1996, he moved to Sacramento, where he opened a chain of pizza parlors.

He says he visited Nuristan secretly, and frequently, when the mujahedeen fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. He returned after the Taliban fell with plans to run for parliament. But President Hamid Karzai asked him to serve as Nuristan's governor instead.

Not everyone was happy with the arrangement.

Lawmaker Dad Mohammed Nuristani, who is no relation to the governor, accuses him of playing tribal politics and contributing to insecurity.

He also accuses the governor of associating with known militants. Specifically, the governor's distant cousin — Haji Ghafour — who the military says is active in warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's militant faction.

Gov. Nuristani dismisses such talk as squabbling by political rivals. He admits he has talked to Haji Ghafour, but only to try to get him to turn himself in.

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