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The Great Mosque of Herat, founded in 1200, is often called the Blue Mosque, because of its blue tiles. Herat, in western Afghanistan, is a cultural center of the country.
The Great Mosque of Herat, founded in 1200, is often called the Blue Mosque, because of its blue tiles. Herat, in western Afghanistan, is a cultural center of the country. (Michael Abrams / S&S)

HERAT, Afghanistan — If the Pentagon started to look for a rest-and-recuperation spot for its troops inside Afghanistan, it could do far worse than this large city near the Iranian border.

“There are two words I would use to describe Herat,” said Sgt. 1st Class David Stansberry, serving his second tour in country. “Prosperity and cultural.”

In other words, Herat doesn’t look like most of Afghanistan. It has modern buildings, paved streets and basic infrastructure. Its people, while approximating the cultural mix that makes up the country, seem a little different as well.

“The people seem to be more interested in developing their economy than shooting bullets at each other,” said Maj. Tim Butts, the Task Force Longhorn engineer. “It’s a very rich province, probably the richest in country.”

Much of Herat’s current success can be attributed to its geography. It’s located in a relatively flat area that sits on trade routes to Iran and Turkmenistan.

“The geography has led to an ability to do trade and travel,” said Stansberry, who speaks Farsi, the language of Iran, less than a two-hour drive away. “And it’s a pretty city. It’s not as hot as it is down south or as cold as it is in the north.”

Though population estimates are difficult in Afghanistan, it’s acknowledged that the capital, Kabul, is the most populous city. It also has some modern buildings and the prestige of being the center of Afghan government.

But, “Herat has been, and probably will be, the cultural capital of Afghanistan,” Stansberry said. “There are a lot of things to see and do here. If we get security to where it should be, tourism could be a big boon to this area.”

A good portion of the city’s current success can also be attributed to Ismael Khan, formerly an autocratic ruler of the area who is now a minister in the federal government.

“You could say some other things about his rule, but he definitely got the roads fixed and city power here,” said Staff Sgt. Terry Welch, a public affairs officer serving his second stint in Herat.

Stansberry, who will soon be heading east to work on a new provincial reconstruction team at a yet-to-be disclosed location, said he can only hope that other areas of Afghanistan soon reach the level of relative prosperity that Herat enjoys.

“Each area and each city has its own personality,” he said. “And once you understand that, you understand Afghanistan.”

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