The only two Westerners living on their own in Kandahar have been bombed, ambushed, and nearly sold to kidnappers. Here's what they've learned about the country where war just won't end.
- By Alex Strick van LinschotenAlex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are Afghanistan-based researchers who edited the forthcoming memoirs of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban. , Felix KuehnFelix Kuehn is co-author of An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 and co-editor of My Life with the Taliban, the autobiography of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef. His research focuses on militant Islamic groups.
For a split second the room seems to vibrate under the pressure of the shock wave. Ears ring, heads retract, and muscles contract. Your mind jump-starts: Did the explosion sound big or small? Where did it come from? You hesitate, wait for another sound, but hear nothing. You jump to your feet, grabbing a camera on the way to the terrace.
Barely a half-mile away, the cloud of debris billows into the sky. The air fills with sirens, and people pour into the street, climbing on top of otherwise never-used pedestrian bridges, craning to make out something in the distance. A pickup truck piled with bloody bodies passes by from the site of the explosion as the cloud slowly descends, losing its shape and covering the city with a new layer of dust and sand.
This is Kandahar, and no one is surprised anymore. Seven times during the past year, blast waves from huge car bombs have ripped through town, shattering windows and throwing up similar clouds of debris. A few weeks ago, a bomb targeting a police convoy tore a huge crater into the street just outside our door. Not long after that, a massive car explosion devastated downtown Kandahar, killing more than 40 and wounding dozens. It was 20 minutes after the call to prayer, when everyone in Kandahar was sitting down to break the Ramadan fast. The blast blew out our windows, shaking plaster from the ceiling and sending glass flying through the room in thousands of pieces. Gunfire ensued. Once the dust settled, you could see the bomb site, just three blocks from our house, streaks of flames shooting into the night sky.
This is our life, and as the only two Westerners living permanently in Kandahar without blast walls and intrusive security restrictions to protect us, it has been a mix of isolation, boredom, disarmingly potent realizations, and outright depression in the face of what is happening. In our 18 months here, we have witnessed up close the ruinous consequences of a conflict in which no party has clean hands. We have spent countless hours talking with people of all persuasions in Kandahar, from mujahedeen who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s, to guerrillas who fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s, to Afghans who fight against the Kabul government and foreign forces today. And we have learned that Kandahar defies simple categorization; far more understanding is necessary before we can appreciate how (and how many) mistakes have been made by the Western countries waging war here, let alone begin crafting a vision for the future.
Our Kandahar has many faces, though, not all branded by conflict. Life here is also about swimming in the nearby Arghandab River, enjoying the cool caramel taste of sheer yakh, and sitting among the branches of a friend’s pomegranate orchard. It’s listening to tales of the past 30 years told by those who directly influenced the course of history, and it’s watching the traditional atan dance at wedding celebrations.
Still, violence affects most aspects of life in Kandahar now, and the city has become used to the bombings. For smaller attacks it takes less than an hour for things to return to normal; the people absorb violence like a sponge. After the recent blast that blew out our windows, one of our Afghan friends turned to us and said, “There are those Afghans who migrated to the West who say they miss Afghanistan.” He burst into laughter. “This is what they are missing!”
On our first trip to Kandahar together, back in 2004, a friend took us to meet Akhtar Mohammad. Slightly taller than most, with a scruffy beard, a turban, and dark-rimmed eyes, he was in charge of a small police post in one of the city’s dicier districts. Over tea, Mohammad offered $50,000 to our friend for the two of us. This was more than five years ago. Today, he could easily pay four times this amount and still make a more than reasonable return on his investment in ransom money.
Over the following years we made many trips around Afghanistan, but Kandahar had become the place we were most interested in: a seemingly insular and ancient society trying to come to terms with a foreign military presence and the perceived corruptions of a globalized culture.
So in the spring of 2008 we set up residence here full-time. Looking back, moving to Kandahar was actually our real arrival in Afghanistan. Away from the isolation and dislocation of the “Kabul bubble,” where expats tend to congregate in heavily secured compounds, we started to live among friends, conducting our own research and editing the memoirs of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan.
There is a sense of timelessness about Kandahar, not just with its look and feel but its importance. The city straddles Afghanistan’s southern trade route to Pakistan and Iran and is considered the heartland of Afghanistan’s millions of ethnic Pashtuns. The Afghan state was founded here in the mid-18th century, and the country’s leaders have invariably been drawn from the tribal stock of the south. By the 1970s, Kandahar was known among foreigners as a peaceful oasis stop on the hippie trail to Kabul, and many residents still remember the music parties hosted in nearby villages, where Afghans, Europeans, and Americans would congregate for days at a time.
During the 1980s war against the Soviets, southern Afghanistan saw some of the worst fighting, and it was among the resistance groups there that the seeds of the Taliban were sown. Although Kandahar had become the de facto capital of the country by the late 1990s, it was still an isolated backwater very much removed from anything going on around it. That changed after America ousted the Taliban eight years ago, and since then, Kandahar has grown into a bustling city of nearly 1 million. Nonetheless, it still has the feel of a big village, where everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and rumors spread within hours.
As foreigners, our only option is to live in downtown Kandahar, which is still relatively safe — that is, if you discount the bomb blasts, assassinations, and occasional rocket attacks. Even so, sharing an apartment with Afghan friends and living among the local community — we don’t know any other foreigners in town — is what allows us a measure of safety. We spend a lot of our time talking with the Pashtun tribal elders who are still left here, and there’s also a certain amount of protection for us in that. We don’t pay anyone anything to guard our lives.
When we first came to Kandahar, the city’s violent underbelly was mostly out of sight. Now, violence is so common that it’s somehow less shocking for its frequency. One day you might sit with the victim of a roadside bombing; another day you’ll talk to a construction company owner who muses that he wants to hire a contract killer to eliminate his competition.
The fallout from the war in the south — and it is very much a war — is never far away. We rarely venture beyond city limits these days, for a trip to most of Kandahar’s surrounding districts holds the real possibility of never coming back. Most people you meet are subject to some tragedy or other: The little girl who used to work as a cleaner in our building lost her father and sister in an IED attack on Canadian forces in the city; our office assistant’s brother was kidnapped more than a year ago; the father of another young friend was killed by a bomb attack in a Lashkar Gah mosque last year; the list goes on and on.
The social effects of this constant bombardment — literal and figurative — are deeply corrosive. A common saying on parting company these days is, “I’ll see you soon, if we’re still alive.” The assumption that you might be killed at any moment is one of the most pervasive and disruptive of mentalities. It means that you cannot think forward more than a day or two. The biggest gain in the shortest amount of time is the usual attitude to most things. With this mindset, it is almost impossible to work, let alone try to build any sort of political consensus.
The nature of the security threat means it is best to keep most activities unplanned. The same goes for extended trips outside the city. The threat from kidnapping gangs — many of whom work in cooperation with (or from within) the police — is very real, and to walk around the city two or three times in a row would almost certainly invite that possibility. For that reason we bought, with much hesitation and regret, a treadmill and a weight bench. For just over $1,000, we chose a middle-of-the-line new Japanese model from the 20-odd machines on display at one sports shop. Occasionally, five days will pass in which neither of us can leave the house. A treadmill is a completely unnatural proposition, but Kandahar has forced us to appreciate the value of a long run leading nowhere.
Security permitting, swimming is also a nice break from it all. Somewhat surprisingly, given that relatively few people in Kandahar know how to swim, there are many opportunities here to do so. Various friends have pools in town, shallow ponds for the most part, or sometimes on a Friday afternoon we travel just outside the city, where thousands congregate to piknik, eating fruit and cooling themselves in the chilly streams and canals of the Arghandab River.
But everything in Kandahar is a trade-off. Whatever you do, wherever you go, there is always something you will have to give up for doing it. You trade your security for a good opportunity for firsthand research, or you trade several days of relatively safe seclusion at home for the restless frustration it breeds. Something of value always has to give. We could not remain living in the city without knowing that lesson. For a while we’ve been considering traveling to one of Kandahar province’s western districts, perhaps the most dangerous place in the country, to find out what exactly is taking place between U.S. troops and Taliban fighters. The downside: We might be captured, beheaded, or worse.
As the west’s political and military leaders are only now starting to realize, greater Kandahar is and has always been the key battlefield for Afghanistan’s future. The international community paid little attention to the south during the first half-dozen years following the Taliban’s fall, and that neglect is now being paid back with a vengeance.
Before moving to Kandahar in early 2008, we used to take the ring road, the main thoroughfare that circles Afghanistan’s perimeter, when traveling to Kabul and back. Friends in Kabul, working from behind concrete blast walls, would often show us their security briefings saying that to take the ring road meant almost certain death. Twice, armed fighters stopped one of us on the road south at an improvised checkpoint. Thankfully, the same excuse worked both times as several years of university Arabic proved persuasive enough to convince them that a European researcher was really a Syrian doctor returning from a health program down south.
Another time we drove to the desert south of Kandahar city for a picnic with friends. Word spread that some musicians had come to perform at the shrine of a local saint. We sat next to the head of one of Kandahar’s government departments, who received a call from a police checkpoint farther north.
“I have eight Taliban with weapons in a car who say that they want to come to the shrine. What should we do with them?” the policeman asked.
“Let them come!” the government official replied. “They’re probably just coming to enjoy the music. Who are we to stop them?” So they came. And nobody sitting there in the desert seemed the least bit worried.
In Kandahar, the Taliban are a fact of life — not necessarily liked, but present nonetheless. The traditional Pashtun recourse to healthy dollops of pragmatism means that a government official can enjoy live music with a Talib, even while each has full knowledge of who the other is. These lines are blurred and the tectonics shift constantly wherever you go in Kandahar. The government is apparently fighting “the Taliban,” this amorphous force that everybody has so much trouble defining, but with whom, at an individual level, there seems to be plenty of room to sit and do business. Indeed, previous governors of Kandahar regularly called and conferred with their ostensible enemy, the Taliban “shadow governor.” More than once, we have sat down to dinner with Afghans who had been fighting Canadians or Americans in neighboring districts earlier that afternoon.
The Taliban are a mixed bunch of characters, and most Afghans here have some link to them. Everyday fighters are drawn from the huge numbers of unemployed, uneducated young men who dominate the rural population, and commanders often are the same figures who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. Some join the Taliban because they lack a better occupation or a forward-looking vision in their lives; others, out of revenge, religious nationalism, or the simple wish to be left alone. But whatever the motivation, their reasons should be heard.
And if there’s one thing we spend a lot of our time in Kandahar doing, it’s sitting in on Pashtun tribal meetings, listening. When we first arrived in town, speaking barely three words of Pashto, it was easy to be awed by the long speeches that elders would frequently make, sometimes lasting almost an hour uninterrupted. These old, white-bearded Pashtuns offer a mix of respect and strong opinions. Everyone is given a chance to speak, even on occasion the two foreigners sitting in the room. Decisions are made on the basis of a complex matrix of overlapping priorities — survival to the next day being the most important, followed closely by tribal loyalties, professional affiliation, and religion.
These meetings offer an important window into how Pashtuns approach conflict in general, how they resolve it, and how the war affects their daily lives. And though in many ways we still feel we are on a crash course in Pashtun culture, a few important takeaways are starting to emerge. Perhaps most notably, we’ve seen that the Pashtun tribal system, still damaged from years of war and foreign interference, is again becoming the first point of call to settle disputes between locals and others — be they the government or the Taliban. Honor is the cornerstone of Pashtunwali, the famed tribal code meant to govern all Pashtun conduct from land disputes to revenge, but so, it seems, is survival.
We’ve also learned that the Taliban transcend Pashtun culture, though they came from the midst of it; their ideology and goals are not formed by their tribal or ethnic identity. And we have worked hard to start to understand how the Taliban have shaped Kandahar’s recent history, conducting dozens of interviews with Afghans who played key roles in the conflicts of the past 30 years and working with Mullah Zaeef to edit and explain his life story.
Indeed, Mullah Zaeef’s life offers many examples of the searing effects of decades of war. At 15, he joined the jihad, leaving his family and the refugee camp back in Pakistan. In reality just a boy, he fought alongside many of those who would later become the founders of the Taliban. His life, since before he was born, has been inscribed with the lines of conflict and loss, betrayal and sacrifice. Today, he is unable to live in Kandahar on accounts of threats from all sides, and he spends much of his time in Kabul explaining and advocating the Taliban position.
When journalist friends come to Kandahar for a few days to report a story, many ask the same question: After all the bombings, in the face of so much personal risk, why on earth do we remain in Kandahar?
This place fascinates and frustrates in equal measure, but it often feels like watching history unfold. This is the fault line, and Pashtun lands have a seemingly disproportionate role to play in the modern world: How will NATO — or U.S. President Barack Obama, for that matter — survive its encounter with southern Afghanistan? If the international community fails in Afghanistan, what does that mean for potential future interventions and nation-building?
The way this grand drama plays out in front of us is both captivating and addictive, but it is increasingly difficult to remain here. More than once this year we have had long discussions about how much longer we can stay. Nothing has happened to us so far, but with people being snatched from the roads and assassinated in the light of day, with a growing number of IED attacks and suicide bombings within city limits, and with the Taliban openly fighting on the streets on the outskirts, a steep paranoia occasionally pounces. In those moments everything feels like a threat.
But no matter how bad or good things become in the city, in the end the war is being lost — and will be lost — in the villages, especially those of the four overwhelmingly rural provinces that make up Loy, or greater Kandahar. Attempts to “protect the people” along belts of security in the cities are perhaps honorable by intention, but they will not end the conflict. Real security — whether behind blast walls in Kabul, inside armored vehicles, or beneath Kevlar flak jackets — remains an illusion. In Kandahar, the simple rule is that everything is ok until it is not.
We each have a European passport, the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card, but the people who live here have no such magic at their disposal. While kidnappings of Western journalists, attacks on military convoys, and threats against aid workers make international headlines, Afghans are trapped in a situation from which they cannot escape, suffering in far greater numbers, only without the limelight.
For those Afghans who are able, Kandahar is a get-rich-and-get-out world. There is little you can’t buy or bribe your way into or out of. We are often asked by one or another of our friends to join forces to open a construction company or support some other moneymaking project. “The Americans are coming now,” they say. “Now is the time. We need to make the money now and then get out of here.” It is as if there is no tomorrow for most people, and with little hope left, this very mindset dooms most initiatives to failure.
Kandahar is a tough school, often unforgiving. It takes a constant effort to navigate the social landscape, like trying to memorize the layout of a minefield. Questions about southern Afghanistan more often than not do not have straight answers, and problems rarely have simple 10-step solutions. Time is the main enemy, for foreigners and for Afghans alike. And on the ground here in Kandahar, it becomes harder with each passing day to imagine that the tide will turn anytime soon.
If Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, then Kandahar is the undertaker.