I finally arrived in Kabul, after a twelve hour flight delay on the Afghan carrier Safi, which was the perfect introduction to Afghanistan. On Sunday I flew from Kabul to Kandahar, the onetime Taliban heartland where Mullah Omar once had his headquarters (locals say his former home is now the local base for the CIA).
I came to this dangerous place because it is the symbolic capital of the Taliban, and the state of its security reflects the success, or lack therof, of U.S. military efforts.
This dusty city, founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., sits on a desert plain surrounded by rocky outcroppings: it has few decent roads, and only a handful of buildings as high as six stories. The old town of small lanes and bazaars,was most destroyed in a series of wars, and the new town stretches out on a few long boulevards lined with open air shops and street vendors. Almost no women are in view, and those that are covered by enveloping lavender or beige burkas.
There is a huge American base alongside the tiny civilian airport. The paved road that civilians once could use to approach the airport has been close off, and the only airport road is an almost unnavigable stretch of dirt and pebbles cut by huge ruts and holes. With all the USAID money going into Afghanistan it is hard to imagine why this road hasn’t been paved.
Every resident I spoke with on my first day here told me the security has deteriorated badly here in the last year, despite the surge of U.S. troops in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand province. Last weekend Taliban conducted four simultaneous attacks including multiple suicide bombers, on the governor’s office – a prominent low complex in the town center, and mayor’s office, and two police headquarters.
As I drove by two of these buildings with my Afghan hosts – I am staying in the city rather than at the walled off base – we could see massed of bullet holes and broken walls in the sagging buildings from whose roofs the Taliban first mounted their attack. Kandaharis believe that elements of the police were involved in the attack. They are also certain that an incredible jailbreak weeks ago – in which 500 militant prisoners escaped, mostly Taliban – was an inside job.
Although there have been rumors that more suicide attacks are on the way, all was calm as we drove around the town, with young men sitting on platforms selling fresh loaves of flat Afghan bread, and stalls hawking the fruits and vegetables for which the region is known.