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Sunday, August 28, 2011

Female leader shows her courage



DR HABIBA SARABI: "My thanks to the government and the people of New Zealand for sending their sons and daughters to Bamiyan."

In an exclusive interview from Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Fairfax National Affairs editor Vernon Small talks to the province's female governor Dr Habiba Sarabi.

Habiba Sarabi is possibly the bravest person in war-torn Afghanistan.

As the leader of Bamiyan province, and as a personal appointment of President Hamid Karzai, the governor is an obvious target for the Taliban.

Bamiyan was one of the first provinces where security was handed over to local control, with transition from the New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) formally taking place in July.

That would be enough to put the governor in the insurgents' crosshairs, without taking into account Sarabi's role as a leader of the Shia minority Hazaran community, the bitter enemies of the Sunni Taliban.

The insurgents have lately switched their focus to high-profile targets such as the British Council office in Kabul, where Kiwi SAS corporal Doug Grant was killed this month.

Two weeks ago, 22 were killed and 34 injured in a suicide bomb attack on the governor's offices in the nearby province of Parwan, though the governor escaped.

On top of all that, Sarabi is the first and only woman to be appointed governor of a province in Afghanistan.

During their rule the Taliban indulged in a form of "gender apartheid", banning education for girls beyond the age of eight and preventing many women from working.

Sarabi, now 55, fled with her children to Peshawar in Pakistan to avoid the Taliban repression, but returned in secret to visit her husband, who stayed on in Kabul.

Now, sitting in her office in Bamiyan with an armed police guard outside, she is philosophical about the risks she is taking.

"If the man or male governor can be a target, I also can be a target, and more than a man because I am the only woman and so it can be a good reason for the Taliban to target me. And of course it can be a credit for them. So, we believe [in] God and God save us."

In the relative peace of Bamiyan, where even the appearance of a Pashtun Sunni contractor is reported by locals to the police as a possible Taliban, there is little risk.

"Whenever I am in Bamiyan I feel secure, but after Bamiyan, no," Sarabi says, her voice tailing off.

The road to Kabul to the east is dangerous and the province is feeling increasingly under siege from more violent neighbouring provinces.

Even in the north east of Bamiyan, where the New Zealand Defence Force has stepped up its presence with two patrols of light armoured vehicles (LAVs), the security situation is fragile. Insurgents infiltrating across the border from neighbouring Baghlan province are blamed for roadside bomb attacks on the Kiwi forces, including the one that killed Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell last year.

Sarabi is looking forward to 2014, when the Kiwi forces are due to leave, and believes that with more modern equipment and heavy weapons – and some extra training – the local forces will cope.


She is also pressing for a quick reaction force for the province and for an army contingent to be posted to the north-east when the Kiwis pull out of the "problematic area" around the Do Abe village. At the moment there is no Afghan army presence in the province.

But she does not see an end to Kiwi involvement when the troops pull out.

"We cannot say it can be at the end. It depends on the whole situation in 2014. They can work more with our police, train them and be back-up as a supporter."

In the meantime, she believes the transition process is going well, and wants to convey her personal thanks directly to New Zealand for its assistance, including aid worth $10 million a year.

"My thanks to the government and the people of New Zealand for sending their sons and daughters to Bamiyan. I fully appreciate it and I want to thank all New Zealanders for that great support."

She credits the Kiwis' success to their cultural tolerance and multi-ethnic background. New Zealand's development assistance includes $7m this year to seal the airport runway, to help attract tourists, tractors for mainly subsistence farmers and a new generator to light the bazaar. At the moment storekeepers fire up individual generators when shoppers arrive.

PRT director Richard Prendergast says there are opportunities for New Zealand to ramp up its assistance and Bamiyan is ready for full transition in the wake of the July ceremony attended by prominent and charismatic politician Dr Ashraf Ghani.

"Ninety percent of the province is now secure, the Afghan national police are undertaking a lot of patrols themselves, there is real potential for improvements in governance and development."

Sarabi is also keen for help with agricultural and livestock production. "We need some expertise to guide the farmers; how they can work better and get more products, not only for agriculture but for animal husbandry."

In the meantime she is using her position as a prominent female to promote women's rights in the male-dominated society. In Bamiyan, 44% of the 130,000 school pupils are female. There was one female police officer in 2005 when she arrived, now there are 20. She also gave her personal protection to the first woman to open a store in the bazaar.

The scale of her achievement comes into focus later at a dinner to celebrate the promotion to general of the province's police chief – a recognition of the peaceful transition to local control. Among a who's who of Bamiyan society, including police, military leaders, judges and religious leaders, she is at the head of the table ... the only woman in the room.

- Sunday Star Times

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