The final approach to Kandahar was rough, with hot wind coming off the desert around the airfield. Even from the air, I could see progress: new roads, new buildings, new cellphone towers. The Kandahar airport has expanded dramatically in recent years, like a sprawling dust-coloured city. The Canadians were part of that growth when the battle group deployed in 2006, doubling the number of soldiers in the south. Now their departure will barely register, as Canadians make up a tiny fraction of the forces still fighting the insurgency.
Canada's pullout is an important symbol, however. At the same time that Canada is leaving, the United States, Britain, France and other countries have started talking about the number of soldiers they will remove in coming years. From the moment I stepped off the plane in Kandahar, I started meeting old friends and acquaintances in various stages of fear and denial about the withdrawals.
It was a hairdresser who best captured the sense of impending ruin. He pointed to a deep crack in the arched ceiling of his small shop in downtown Kandahar, the only trace of a suicide bombing a couple of years ago. Everything else in the salon looks better these days: The ripped grey linoleum has been replaced with blue tile, and waiting customers now relax on a plush sofa instead of plastic lawn chairs. A television has been installed, bringing news of the war that rages ever more fiercely.
The hairdresser, Zabiullah Farhad Khoshbakht, 37, complained to his landlord that the jagged lines across his ceiling made him worried that chunks of concrete might break off. The landlord put masking tape over the cracks; when the tape breaks, he told him, run away. The yellowed bits of tape broke a long time ago, but Mr. Khoshbakht tries to ignore the warning sign. He avoids looking at the ceiling, and continues snipping, buzzing and trimming for the dwindling number of customers who are willing to brave the dangerous streets for a haircut.
He nodded enthusiastically at the idea that his damaged shop serves as a metaphor for the way Kandahar has emerged from the past five years, since the arrival of Canada's battle group: scarred by violence, with visible signs of improvement, but every day a little closer to the whole thing crashing down on everyone's head.
"Now, we have an asphalt road, and it was only dirt before," he said, gesturing with his scissors at the street, where an Afghan policeman sat in the back of a pickup truck, keeping watch with a heavy machine gun. "We have a good sidewalk. But when the Canadians came, they promised to bring security and stop the fighting, and it only increased."
I've known this man for five years. He did not want to offend me, but felt compelled to make a point. "They did not keep their promises," he said.
The official version
The haircutter could keep working if the Taliban seize the city; others would need to run away. This includes Dagarwal Farooq, 52, director of Sarpoza prison, who got the job after the latest jailbreak in April, when hundreds of inmates scurried to freedom through a tunnel. The prisoners at Sarpoza now include his predecessor, locked up on suspicion of helping insurgents escape.
Mr. Farooq carries a key fob decorated with a Canadian government logo, and his institution has been showered with Canadian money: the upgraded jail looks nothing like the medieval warrens that previously served as the biggest prison in southern Afghanistan. But he fears that all those improvements, like so many others in Kandahar, could amount to nothing. He has seen it before, when he served in the communist regime and watched the Soviet troops departing. The communists bought themselves a little breathing room in those days by making deals with their enemies, he said, but he predicted no such agreements with the Taliban.
"If you look at the situation in Afghanistan in the future, it will be very bad," the prison director said. "It will be like Vietnam."
Even the governor, Tooryalai Wesa, who served in the communist administration at the time of the Soviet withdrawal, said his government's forces are not as strong as they were during the 1980s. "They had belief, commitment," Mr. Wesa said. "Now, they escape from the battlefield."
The new police chief, Brigadier-General Abdul Razik, is a favourite with the U.S. military because of his can-do attitude; unsurprisingly, he did not predict another Vietnam. He spoke with confidence about filling the streets with plainclothes agents, so the Taliban would fear every beggar and taxi driver. It's a strategy from the Soviet days, when the KGB taught its tricks to the local intelligence service.