The Afghan forces clearly know that they are in for one hell of a fight.
Our vehicle is stopped and searched repeatedly; I count a dozen roadblocks before losing track of them as we crawl past concrete blast walls and machine-gun nests. Afghan army, police, intelligence forces and paramilitaries are posted at every corner, stationed so closely together that they share a pack of cigarettes by tossing it down the road.
I have visited Kandahar city 18 times, but I have never before witnessed a gauntlet of security checkpoints like the one on a recent summer evening. The place is hunkering down for a siege. A bustling city of perhaps 500,000, it was defended by Canadian troops for more than five years during the Afghanistan war. The fact that Kandahar has not yet fallen to the Taliban insurgency is our soldiers’ most significant legacy.
It is now an open question how long this city will stand. Canada ended its combat role in 2011 and will start withdrawing its remaining 800 army mentors from Kabul, the capital, next month. Many North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have already departed. By the end of 2014, most of the U.S. troops will be gone.
The Afghan forces, meanwhile, are struggling with Taliban insurgent attacks that increased almost 50 per cent in early 2013, compared with the same period in 2012. Just before losing his job this summer, Afghanistan’s interior minister revealed that police casualties have quadrupled since last year. A former district governor I spoke to predicted that his own town, Ghorak, just northwest of Kandahar – where Canadians fought and died – would be among the first to fall under Taliban control. Other nearby districts are equally at risk.
The sad reality is that the West’s well-intentioned hubris about bringing peace and stability to southern Afghanistan has measurably failed – this is especially true in the southern part of the country, where Kandahar is the biggest city – and that the war with the Taliban will keep escalating even as the world’s attention fades.
In private conversation, Western officials often ask: What will happen next?
A moment’s peace
My contact list of old friends in Kandahar is riddled with the notation “DEAD” beside the phone numbers. Local news outlets counted more than 500 major assassinations in Kandahar province from 2002 to 2010. But, on my return trip to Kandahar city, I was surprised to find many acquaintances still alive. What’s more, it was astounding how many of them reported that security had improved in the city centre, even as the province erupted in carnage.
The heightened security has brought a tense quiet to the central neighbourhoods. Since 2005, I have been dropping by a local hairdresser, Zabiullah Farhad Khoshbakht, to get his take on the situation. This time, he seemed happier than I had seen him in years. On previous visits, he would start getting nervous after a short interview and politely suggest that I leave for my own safety; foreign visitors attracted the wrong kind of attention. On this visit, he suggested I stay longer and get a cut, teasing me about my shaggy hair.
Mr. Khoshbakht is 40 now, staying healthy by running six kilometres each morning before the arrival of the midday heat (43 Celsius on the day of our conversation). As he jogs around the city in the early dawn, he has been impressed by the heavy build-up of Afghan security forces. When we first met, the entire country had only 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police; now, the official figure is about 330,000. Most analysts assume that the numbers are inflated; even still, the increases are obvious.
“A few changes are happening,” Mr. Khoshbakht said as his assistant swept up hair clippings from his last customer. “Now, they are searching everywhere, they have many check posts. The police are more active.”