Some of the police ask for small “donations,” and their presence slows travel in the city, but Mr. Khoshbakht did not seem to mind. The suicide bombings that rocked the city’s core are less frequent, which means that his customers are less worried about sitting near the glass windows of his storefront and enjoying a cup of tea.
Like many businesses, the salon flourished in the years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Customers rushed to get cuts resembling Leonardo DiCaprio’s in Titanic – a film that became popular on bootleg copies in the local bazaar – and close-cropped beards.
When Canada and its NATO allies surged into the south in 2006 in a counter-insurgency campaign that coincided with massive bloodshed, customers went back to boring haircuts and long beards to avoid being targeted by Taliban assassination squads. Now, the young men of Kandahar are returning to get bold, spiky cuts. On the walls of the salon, fading images of Mr. DiCaprio have been joined by photos of Hugh Grant, George Clooney and Elijah Wood.
‘We can’t even feed our men’
It’s good to see my friends enjoying a little breathing space. An English teacher told me that he now picnics at the north end of the Arghandab River Valley, which would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago. But visiting with the Afghans responsible for waging the war with the Taliban reinforces the fragility of this moment of relative stability.
Many locals credit the current quiet to Brigadier-General Abdul Razik, a controversial police commander in Kandahar who is effectively the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan. He is known for enforcing strict discipline among his men, and for his brutal tactics.
I went to see Gen. Razik at his sprawling outpost. His guards frisked my translator and me seven times with almost theatrical rigour. His office was modest by the gaudy standards of Afghan officials: no fake flowers, no bowls of plastic fruit. He was disarmingly polite, although he has been known to beat his subordinates when they displease him.
When I asked him what happens after the foreign troops leave, he spoke at length about how the international community should give more support to a program known as the Afghan Local Police (ALP).
The ALP program, sponsored by the United States and Britain, offers villagers three weeks of training, Kalashnikovs and pickup trucks, then sends them back to their home districts to serve as a bulwark against the insurgency. Reviews have been mixed – some units are accused of torture, rape and summary execution – but the U.S. government reportedly plans to increase the force to 45,000 men from 19,600 and keep funding the program until at least 2018.
Gen. Razik said the international community should extend the ALP training period to a full month, fix problems with the pay system and help with basic logistics such as making sure that the fighters get enough to eat. “They are forced to collect stale bread, charity from the common people,” the commander said. “We can’t even feed our men.”
Foreign donors and many Afghan leaders remain ambivalent about the ALP, however. A few of the most senior politicians in Kandahar city told me that they appreciate the units’ fierce resistance to the Taliban, but they added that they are afraid of them. There are serious questions about whether it’s a good idea to supply guns and ammunition to gangs of men who have little training and questionable loyalty to the central government.
‘This is war’
In practical terms, when you need villagers ready to kill the Taliban, you often end up turning to old commanders of the mujahedeen, the rebels who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and then turned against each other in the 1990s.
Perhaps the most prominent former mujahedeen commander remaining in Kandahar province is Ustad Abdul Halim, who still retains influence over a strategic patch of ground west of the city. One of my friends calls him “a campy version of Saddam Hussein.” He does not really speak; he growls and rasps.