The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan pedaled a green swan-shaped boat across the deep blue waters of the Band-e-Amir lakes Thursday during a dedication of the country's first national park.
Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star Army general, told several hundred Afghans gathered for a ceremony that Band-e-Amir reminded him of one of America's national parks — the Grand Canyon.
While walking around one of the lakes, he jumped in a swan-shaped pedal boat and beamed a bright smile as he cruised the waters with different Afghan officials, including one of the country's two vice presidents.
"Seeing these crystal blue waters, set among the red cliffs and the travertine dams, shows the beauty in this land and the hope for the future," Eikenberry said in his dedication speech.
Surrounded by stark cliffs
Band-e-Amir is a cascading collection of six high-mountain lakes in the country's peaceful central highlands. Surrounded by stark red cliffs, the lakes were a popular tourist destination before the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, and officials hope they can attract tourists from around the world.
Band-e-Amir is in Bamiyan province, which has been relatively unaffected by the violence that plagues eastern and southern Afghanistan, where Taliban fighters and other militants control swathes of land and regularly clash with international and Afghan forces. Band-e-Amir was declared a national park in April.
The capital of Bamiyan is where Taliban fighters in spring 2001 blasted away two towering ancient Buddha statues carved into the region's red cliffs. Officials believe that Band-e-Amir and the remnants of the statues can combine for a powerful tourist attraction if Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces can tamp down militant violence.
Mustafa Zahir, the director of the country's environmental program, who spoke at the park's dedication, called for Afghans from across the country — from the southern city of Kandahar to the western city of Herat — to visit the park.
'Symbol of national unity'
"It's my desire that Band-e-Amir becomes a symbol of national unity," he said.
The Band-e-Amir lakes sit at some 9,500 feet, and the park covers about 230 square miles.
USAID, the U.S. government aid arm, spent almost $1 million to help the lakes gain national park status. The Wildlife Conservation Society helped identify the park's boundaries and worked with villagers living near the park, who have been persuaded to shift a bazaar that was located at the lakeside to prevent pollution of the water.
Making Band-e-Amir a national park means that planning regulations will also be in force to prevent property development at the lakeside. It will also give the four park rangers who now patrol the shores more enforcement powers to protect the area.