By Matt O'Brien, Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

HAYWARD -- Carol Ruth Silver last met Mohammad Musa Khan Ahmadzai in the ancient Afghan city of Ghazni, where Silver caused a minor stir by standing up to tell him and about 90 other Afghan political leaders that they ought to have more women in the room.

As her impromptu comments were translated, a chattering buzz arose among the men in turbans and flat-topped pakol hats who were assembled to welcome a small crew of Bay Area visitors to their city in late March. Khan had a quick response, gesturing to the lone Afghan woman in the room -- a provincial representative who was sitting near the back -- and asserting that there were, indeed, female politicians in Ghazni.

Silver and Khan will chat again this week -- and the East Bay will be their meeting place, part of a wartime relationship forged between the Ghazni region, the city of Hayward and the local Afghan-American community.

On the surface, Silver and Khan appear to have little in common. She is a liberal real estate lawyer and former San Francisco supervisor with credentials in the civil rights and gay rights movements. He is the heavily bearded governor of Afghanistan's Ghazni province, a conservative Muslim and retired general who fought in the mujahedeen resistance against the country's Soviet occupation.

But their conversations are happening as part of a warm and budding partnership between the Bay Area and a part of central Afghanistan that benefits both sides, Silver said.

"I am hoping that the visitors will learn about America, that they will experience the hospitality and warmth of Americans toward Afghanistan and toward them," she said.

With more than 15,000 Afghan-Americans, the Bay Area has the largest Afghan population in the country, according to census estimates. Hayward, along with Fremont, is one of the hubs. The city houses a large mosque that caters to a primarily Afghan congregation and a hillside field dedicated to kite competitions popular in Afghanistan. The mayors of Hayward and Ghazni signed a formal sister city agreement in 2006.

The 11-member Afghanistan delegation was scheduled to land Sunday and will visit some unconventional attractions for Bay Area tourists, including the Union City sanitary plant, Fremont's Ardenwood Park and Hayward City Hall during its weekly City Council meeting. The tour, sponsored by the State Department, is meant to showcase the fruits of effective local governance to representatives of a region that is struggling to lift itself from war, poverty and corruption.

"I hope that it will give them a sense of ordinary people coming to their government in a respectful and positive way and being received in a respectful and positive way; the opinions of citizens being valued and all that small-scale democratic governance entails," Silver said. "There are very few examples of it in Afghanistan."

The visitors include Afghanistan's national minister of urban development, a female parliamentarian from Ghazni, the mayor of the city of Ghazni and Khan, who is governor of the surrounding province.

At a time when more American politicians -- including East Bay Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove -- are calling for the United States to pull out of its long war against the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the visit also offers Americans a rare chance to learn what some of the people of Afghanistan think about it.

"The U.S. relationship between Afghanistan is being analyzed very closely," said Humaira Ghilzai of the San Francisco-based Afghan Friends Network, an organization that has helped build schools in Ghazni. "This is our opportunity to actually hear directly from Afghans."

Ghilzai, Silver and others began talking with Hayward leaders in 2003 about forming a sister city relationship with Ghazni that could help spark regional exchanges, volunteerism and private fundraising for educational programs in Afghanistan. "For better or for worse, there's a strong link between the U.S. and Afghanistan," said Cal State East Bay President Mohammad Qayoumi, a native of Afghanistan who is hosting the delegation at his Hayward campus Tuesday. "We are spending a large amount of our tax dollars there. We have a lot of young men and women in combat there. We have a lot of things that are connected."

The Ghazni delegation also hopes to use the Bay Area visit to promote their city, which an international preservation group has chosen to be 2013's Center for Islamic Culture -- a recognition of its illustrious history. When Europe was still in its so-called Dark Ages, Ghazni was a medieval center of literature, science, arts, trade and religion -- first Buddhism, then Islam. It was the seat of an 11th-century empire that spanned the region.

Few outsiders, however, are expected to visit for the occasion. Security in the province has deteriorated in recent years. Visitors from previous sister city trips used to take the highway to Ghazni from Kabul but were forced to take a military helicopter in March. Taliban militants and opportunity-minded bandits rule many provincial roads and the Taliban operate their own shadow government and police force. A suicide bomber killed the deputy governor in September.

At the same time, Qayoumi, who was also on the March trip, said he witnessed progress. Schools have reopened -- and new schools are being built -- throughout the region, including many that teach young girls who were previously excluded from education.

"You get a sense that there is hope," Qayoumi said. "Ghazni is one of those provinces that can be a good barometer of how the whole nation is."