BAMIYAN, Afghanistan — Poverty is endemic in Bamiyan and the infrastructure barely past medieval, but this peaceful province is about as good as it gets in Afghanistan today.
The road to the pristine Band-e-Amir lakes is being paved. September's parliamentary elections were violence-free here, and business isn't bad at Hassan Ali's craft shop on Bamiyan's single, bustling thoroughfare.
Yet word that the province could be among the first to be "transitioned" away from NATO's security blanket and turned over to Afghan forces has sent tremors of unease through Afghanistan's central highlands.
"As soon as they leave, these different ethnic groups will start fighting each other," said Ali, whose one-room shop stocks scarves, rugs and carpets made by a women's cooperative. "We're Afghans, and we know our people very well. We cannot coexist with each other."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Bamiyan, a land of majestic, snow-capped mountains and potato fields whose harvest has just been picked, is no stranger to bloodshed. Ethnic Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims and in the majority here, have been long marginalized and oppressed. From 1996 to 2001, they suffered grievously at the hands of the Taliban, ethnic Pashtuns who are conservative Sunni Muslims and are now fighting U.S. and allied forces to regain sway over Afghanistan.
Past trauma and future anxiety underscore the challenge that President Barack Obama and the NATO alliance face in turning over even quiet areas, let alone districts in Afghanistan's south and east where fighting rages.
When alliance leaders meet Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in Lisbon, Portugal, later this week, the agenda is said to include a transition plan that would see U.S. and allied forces leave Afghanistan by 2014. Districts in Bamiyan, Panjshir and Parwan provinces are at the front of the queue to be handed to internationally trained Afghan national security forces, according to Pentagon officials.
No announcements about timing are expected until next year.
The talk of transition has given pause to inhabitants of Bamiyan.
If "the foreign forces will leave Bamiyan, the (Taliban) opposition will infiltrate the province and the Afghan security forces will not be able to defend the people against them," said Abdul Ahad Farzam, who works in the local offices of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Farzam spoke in the commission's offices, on a plateau that overlooks Bamiyan's old city in its mountain-flanked valley. Two mass graves lie on the city's outskirts, he said. In one atrocity, Taliban forces massacred at least 170 civilians in Yakaolang valley to the west in January 2001, according to the group Human Rights Watch.
Bamiyan isn't brimming with either foreign or Afghan troops to begin with. A provincial reconstruction team manned mostly by more than 100 soldiers from New Zealand concentrates on much-needed development projects and improving governance. Command of the reconstruction team already has shifted to a civilian.
There are 800 to 900 Afghan national police officers in Bamiyan, according to the provincial police chief, Gen. Mohammad Awaz Naziri, but no permanent Afghan National Army presence.
While residents praise the provincial reconstruction team and most wouldn't welcome its shuttering, their bigger worry is that a broader NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan might empower the Taliban to return here.
Most didn't welcome reports last month of stepped-up negotiations between the Karzai government and Taliban representatives, Farzam said, citing an informal survey the commission undertook.
There are concerns that insurgents are trying to draw a noose around this enclave. The road through Wardak province to the southeast was attacked last year, there's been trouble to the east in a district of Parwan and the Taliban are said to be in a northern district of Bamiyan itself, Kahmard.
"The Taliban will come from Kahmard ... and of course they will come from Wardak as well," said shopkeeper Ali, who bears a passing resemblance to Ho Chi Minh, but with an impish smile. He cited his age as 50.
His shop sits on Bamiyan city's single paved avenue, amid a colorful, noisy collection of stalls, one-room pharmacies, a few restaurants and an Internet cafe. Cars, small trucks, motorcycles and pedestrians vie for space.
The optimistic view, expressed by Western and Afghan officials, is that Bamiyan could be a model for the rest of the country.
Voter turnout in the parliamentary elections was 65 to 70 percent, and Bamiyan had the largest ratio of female voters in the country, said a Western official who wasn't authorized to speak for the record and thus spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Commerce in Afghanistan traditionally has circumvented the Hazarajat, as the central highlands are known, but in some places, paved roads are slowly replacing rutted mountain tracks. The province is seeking funding for a new airport to replace the gravel airstrip, so that someday tourists might fly here directly from abroad.
Throughout history, the Hazaras "have rarely been granted the opportunity for self-improvement. They see this as their time," the Western official said. But "it's going to require the rest of the country to have stability as well."
In fact, regional officials say that Bamiyan — short-changed on resources for decades by the central government — is being penalized now for its security. Development funds and attention are being showered instead on areas of the country where the Taliban-led insurgency is most active.
"The Afghan government has always had an ethnic agenda," Mohammad Sarwar Jawadi, a parliament member from Bamiyan, said in an interview in Kabul. "They say they want to spend most of the aid money in areas where there is a lot of fighting.
"Outwardly, it looks like a good strategy for spending the aid money. Inwardly, it means all the aid money will be spent in (majority) Pashtun areas."
Habiba Surabi, Bamiyan's provincial governor — and Afghanistan's only female governor — said her budget had declined from $120 million last year to $90 million this year.
"Here, it's really difficult to get a penny of money from the international community," she said in an interview.
Jawadi said the people of Bamiyan "were so hopeful" when international forces arrived in the province. Now, with their departure on the horizon, "it will not make any difference if they stay or if they leave."
(McClatchy special correspondent Habib Zohori contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan developments at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul blog
Check out McClatchy's national security blog, Nukes & Spooks