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Many in Kandahar fear looming disaster as Canada withdraws

Brig.-Gen Dean Milner center, Commander of Canadian Forces Kandahar slaute along with others for Afghan and Canadian anthem during a transfer of command authority ceremony in Kandahar airbase in Afghanistan, Thursday, July 7, 2011.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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.

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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.

Return engagement

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.

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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.

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.

Afghan makeover

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.

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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.

But the police chief seemed to despise the more important communist strategy: trading land and cash for peace. His own relative, Esmat Muslim, was among the anti-Soviet commanders, or mujahedeen, lured to the government side in the late 1980s, but he now believes such agreements won't work because the new generation of fighters lacks patriotism.

"The mujahedeen loved their country, just wanted the Russians to leave," Gen. Razik said. "Now, the insurgents want other things."

Talking to the Taliban

The Taliban disagree, saying their biggest aim is troop withdrawals, but Gen. Razik is correct that the Taliban want "other things" that do not sit well with the government: a new constitution, a new president. A researcher I've worked with for years in Kandahar travelled west of the city on my behalf, meeting two mid-level insurgent leaders and phoning back so that I could chat with them.

They were full of triumphant rhetoric about the Canadian pullout and the coming U.S. withdrawals.

Somewhat chillingly, they were the only people I spoke with in Kandahar who predicted that violence would decrease after the foreign troops leave. They expected to sweep back into power as they did from 1994 to 1996, eventually leaving Dr. Najibullah hanging in a public square, imposing a brutal order on the chaos.

Their return probably won't be so easy this time; foreign aid will continue flowing into Kabul even after the troops leave. Without a peace deal or a decisive victor, Afghanistan could be left with civil war.  Perhaps just as unlikely as the Taliban dream of imposing peace is their promise to continue hunting Canadians. They seemed undeterred by the fact that most insurgents cannot locate Canada on a map; thousands of civilians have died, they say, leaving a score that may need to be settled in future.

"They killed our people and we killed theirs," an insurgent commander said. "Whether we need to take more revenge, we will discuss this after they withdraw."

Bad Polling Numbers

None of the locals I met during a week in Kandahar described a feeling of safety in their communities, and I was working in the safest parts of the city. The Canadian government claims that Afghans feel differently: "Overall, 59 per cent of Kandaharis polled feel safe in their communities and 54 per cent think that security is improving," says the latest quarterly report on the Afghan mission. "These levels are considerably higher than what was observed over the same period in 2010, when just 38 per cent reported feeling safe and 39 per cent believed security was improving."

The numbers are pulled from a set of 16 polls commissioned by the Canadian military and conducted by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research (ACSOR), a large private firm. An analysis of ACSOR data, obtained by the Globe and Mail, shows that a statistician raised serious doubts about the company's methods in Afghanistan. The British government commissioned two study papers, totalling 89 pages, which concluded last year that officials should not use the ACSOR results "for potentially contentious questions around government performance, security, corruption, justice and democracy." The author suggested that trend indicators may be useful, if treated cautiously, but emphasized that high percentages of the Afghans surveyed did not understand the questions or felt uncomfortable answering honestly. During one round of surveys for the international military forces in southern Afghanistan, in Dec. 2009, the results suggested that only half the respondents understood the whole survey, and only a slightly greater percentage felt comfortable with all the questions. In a different ACSOR survey, roughly 60 per cent of respondents "somewhat" or "strongly" agree that it's not acceptable to criticize the government. Those numbers suggest that Afghans are vulnerable to what surveyors call "social desirability bias," a fancy term for telling people what they want to hear. That's a problem everywhere, but gets magnified in a war zone where people do not feel safe speaking openly. One Western statistician said the social desirability issue makes the polls almost pointless -- an idea rejected, of course, by ACSOR and the Canadian government.

"Polling in Afghanistan plays a useful and productive role in trying to understand the impact of both the Afghan and international efforts that are ongoing in all parts of the country," said Matthew Warshaw, ACSOR's managing director, in an email. "We apply rigorous social science research standards in our projects." His clients also appear satisfied: "Polling data provides the Canadian forces in Afghanistan with very valuable information," said a spokeswoman at the Canadian embassy in Kabul. Paul Fishstein, a Harvard fellow whose experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan spans three decades, says the analysis of ACSOR data gives some relief to the veteran researchers who have always wondered why the numbers differed from their anecdotal understanding of local opinion. "At a minimum," he said, "it helps many of us reconcile what we hear over tea with Afghan friends and colleagues with the alternate reality presented by some of the public opinion polls."

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