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."
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.
I went straight to his house upon my arrival in Kandahar. Mr. Halim leaped up and shook my hand in the traditional way – and then did not let go, pulling me by the arm out his front gate, explaining along the way that he wanted to show me the recent success of the ALP.
This was way beyond the risks I had intended to take on my return visit to Kandahar, but soon I found myself squeezed into the back seat of a car with one of Mr. Halim's bodyguards, Kalashnikov between his knees, hurtling west along Highway 1. We travelled a short distance into the Zhari district, then cut off the main road and roared along a dirt track to a small country house.
Mr. Halim was showing off: Canadians fought pitched battles among these trees. Now, he dared to travel here in an ordinary Toyota Corolla, with only a handful of guards, and sit around for hours on a rooftop, watching the sun setting over the Panjwaii Valley and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes spiked with hashish.
Like many former mujahedeen involved with ALP units, Mr. Halim has no official job. He was not technically responsible for the young men in white pickup trucks who patrolled this district. But his networks of former militia leaders helped to raise these ALP units, and he claimed a role as ombudsman. "If there are any complaints about the ALP in this area, people come and talk to me," he said. "Then I speak with the commander."
Mr. Halim summoned a local ALP commander to his home the next day. The young leader said he is responsible for 600 men, including 20 from his own family. He complained about a lack of weapons, bullets, fuel and food. He found it difficult to pay salaries on a timely basis, he said, because money goes missing from the bank.
Most worrying, however, were his thoughts about whether it is necessary to follow the rules established by the central government. Under the law, the ALP has no authority to take prisoners. The young commander chafed at the idea of his superiors restricting his ability to capture enemies – and beat them, if they deserved a thrashing.
"The government was upset because we beat a man we captured," he said, scowling. "Of course, we beat him. This is war."
A war that continues, without us.
Graeme Smith is an analyst for the International Crisis Group, supervising a small team in Afghanistan, and the author of the new book The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan.