My first visit to Kandahar was a carefree road trip down a freshly paved highway, in the days before bombings blew holes in the blacktop and Taliban started kidnapping people along the way. I leaned out the window of my sedan and took snapshots. Those were better times, in 2005, before road travel became suicidal. The Canadians still talked about peace and democracy, about defeating the insurgency in two or three years. A battle group was preparing to surge into the south. It expected a warm welcome: Human Rights Watch claimed that locals were clamouring for the "benefits of international security assistance." Experts called this a post-conflict mission, as if the worst of the fighting was over.
I flew back to Kandahar this summer, my 17th visit, before Canada formally ended its combat mission on Thursday. The violence was setting records. Peace and democracy seemed like half-forgotten dreams. After years of empty boasts about smashing the insurgency, military commanders admitted that they could not defeat the Taliban. They were packing up and leaving the mess to the Afghan government, telling it to negotiate some kind of settlement with its enemies.
Whatever has been achieved over the past five years is sometimes called "fragile progress," but that delicate phrase does not capture the sense of looming disaster many locals feel, a fear that the foreigners built a system that will soon collapse.
In dozens of interviews with locals - governor to farmer, police chief, hairdresser and Taliban - people expressed appreciation for all the construction projects, the schools and roads, but described the overall situation as terribly precarious.
They do not trust that the corrupt Afghan government, installed by foreigners, will be strong enough to stand by itself. Even senior government officials doubt their own comrades, and those misgivings are stronger at the lower ranks: A bodyguard for the governor mused about joining the Taliban; a policeman begged the Canadians to stay because he feared that his family would be killed.
Many spoke about the tradition of revenge, the way conflicts can burn for generations in Afghanistan. A farmer described his plans to kill a government official who steered a Canadian road project through his vineyard, saying he would attack when the troops leave and the government weakens.
The level of anxiety in Kandahar surprised me, because troop withdrawals did not seem like a bad idea at first blush. Every surge of reinforcements in recent years has brought new heights of violence. It's not crazy to think that the coming withdrawals will sap the energy, and unity, of insurgents whose rallying cry has always been the removal of foreign troops.
And the new government has visibly strengthened in recent years. On my first visit in 2005, I had to crawl along the baggage carousel and duck through the plastic curtain to find my bags, wrestling with dirty children who tried to slip their fingers into my pockets. Now, the local police have cleared away the beggars and porters, and the Kabul airport itself looks much better: carved wood, clean marble, freshly painted surfaces. Standing in the astonishingly straight line for a flight to Kandahar - no pushing, no jostling - I turned to a friend and said: "This place is beautiful now."
An Afghan standing behind me overheard the comment. "Are you kidding?" he said. "It was much better during Najib's time." He was referring to the last communist ruler, Mohammad Najibullah, whose presidency serves as the model for Afghans who hope the current regime will last. Dr. Najibullah clung to power as long as he continued receiving billions of dollars' worth of Soviet support; his downfall came only as the assistance dried up and he ran into supply shortages in 1992.
The Afghan who challenged my rosy view also sat beside me on the short flight to Kandahar. He introduced himself as a Pashto-language interpreter for "OGA," an acronym that means "other government agencies," shorthand for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He looked exhausted and seemed irrationally angry, insisting that the stewardesses were too ugly. He did not harbour any great hopes for his own government, which he considered weaker than the communist regime. When I asked him why the foreigners' good intentions had amounted to so little, he looked at me like the answer was obvious.
"Because they're idiots," he said, with his American accent drawing out the first vowel of the word "idiots" into a long "eeeeee" sound. Then he cranked up something called "party mix" on his iPod and ignored me for the rest of the flight.