Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Meanwhile, in Kandahar

In Southern Afghanistan the Taliban is rising again:

Fear permeates Kandahar. Eyes watch every passer-by, every car. Everyone is suspect. People shrink away from me when I ask to interview them. They run when they see a camera. The few brave souls who agree to talk do so either anonymously or because they are desperate.

There is no war, no shooting, no rockets. At least not yet, although the Taliban wave is reconquering Afghanistan, and fighting is spreading through Kandahar province.

Only a few months ago, the city of Kandahar was on the road to prosperity. Newly-paved streets with proper signs - one even named after Queen Soraya, wife of the 1920s reformer King Amanullah Khan - a park with a playground for children and several smart guesthouses were part of the new image. Near the Kandahar market, the foundations of many new modern buildings and houses had been laid.

Mohammad Hikmat and his younger brother bought land here - £27,000 for 400 sq m - to build a home. Over the past five years they made good money working with foreign reporters and aid agencies. But six months ago it all came to an end. The Taliban were coming back. All construction stopped. Fear spread like a fire. Then came a series of suicide attacks and printed decrees, often hung on the walls of local mosques, ordering the people to stop supporting the government.

Mr Hikmat decided to shelve his dream of owning a house and took his family to safety, across the Afghan-Pakistan border to Quetta. The construction company where he worked as an engineer fired most of its staff.

Mr Hikmat destroyed the press cards and letters of recommendation he and his brother had collected from journalists. His brother, who worked as a cameraman, erased all footage from his tapes, all film of the city, interviews and pictures of American troops, for fear of punishment by the Taliban. An Indian company that built the road between Kandahar and Spinboldak fled when news spread that the Pakistani army was helping the Taliban to reach Kandahar. Most foreigners left.


"Now the Taliban are everywhere," says Alia, a nurse in Kandahar's Polyclinic Hospital. She returned from Pakistan four years ago in the hope of living and working in Kandahar and made her home in the Khoshal Mena neighbourhood, a short distance from the city centre.

"There was a doctor called Aziz in this building" she says. "The Taliban hung a leaflet on his door, telling him if he didn't stop working for the government and didn't take his children out of school, he would be killed." He and his family escaped overnight.

Now Alia says she is scared for her own family's life. She has taken down the sign on her door which carried her name and occupation. "My children are also in school and I'm worried that I may face a similar threat," she says. Najeeba has her own mocking reaction. "At least they give you a warning," she remarks, although this might be a compliment by Afghan standards.

But Alia has another reason to worry. In recent months she engaged her 16-year-old daughter to a young Afghan who works for the Western military forces. He paid the family a bride price of about £7,000. But now Alia is fearful that her daughter and her new family will also become a Taliban target. For the Taliban control most of Helmand province, where some 4,000 British troops are stationed.

Imagine the success story the "war on terror" could have told if Bush had reined in his desire to attack Iraq and if we had spent all that Iraq blood money on improving life in Afghanistan? Imagine what this success story might have done to change the minds of those young muslims who now turn towards the radical extremist ideas. Or don't imagine; imagining it all is just too depressing.

Kandahar's problems are linked to the illegal opium poppy cultivation, too, in fairly complicated ways. One person interviewed in this article states that the Taliban allows poppy growing whereas NATO does not, and the locals need the poppy to make a living. This is one example how the support for religious extremism may have nothing to do with religion in itself. Another interesting comment is by a man who says this:

Of course, there are more conspiracy theories than facts. But the reality is that fear dominates every aspect of life here. "It would be easier to live under the full control of one or another government, be it the Taliban or a US-supported Afghan government," says Rafi. "But this is like living in purgatory."

If the Americans leave, Kandahar will fall in a week. That's what people in the city's bazaar say - and they are the ones who know the Taliban and al-Qa'ida.

Would our wingnut friends care about this return of the Taliban? Probably not. But if the Taliban returns so will the terrorists.