Anyone who values their life tries to avoid going out after dark in Kandahar. This place is a death trap at the best of times and the odds on survival plummet with the sun. The only sounds at night are the helicopters transporting chaos to an unsuspecting village or the odd burst of gunfire echoing through the city.
Security is almost nonexistent on the frontline of Afghanistan’s forgotten war and the people have had enough. More than five years after they were promised peace, prosperity and liberty, all many want now is for the Taliban to come back. ‘The Americans say they are democratic, modern and know everything, but they fuck us in so many different ways,’ says Faiz Mohammed Karigar, a local resident. ‘How can we forgive them? How can we forgive the Americans?
‘If I sit at a table with an American and he says he has brought us freedom, I will tell him he has fucked us: “You did not bring us freedom.”‘
As the world starts to acknowledge the full horror of Iraq, Afghanistan slips towards the same grim hell. With each passing week another nail is hammered into the coffin of the Nato-led mission.
‘When the Taliban were here I escaped to the border with Iran, but I was never worried about my family,’ Karigar tells me. ‘Every single minute of the last three years I have been very worried. Maybe tonight the Americans will come to my house, touch my wife, touch my children and arrest me.
‘I have already decided to stand against them. I will stand against them even when I see them on the road. I will fight them with my tongue, my hands, with guns – I will fight them in any way I can.’
The southern province of Kandahar is where the Taliban movement was born and it is here that it has come back to life, resuscitated by the widespread anger Afghans feel towards the foreign troops in their midst. When Mullah Mohammed Omar was in power people could walk the streets safely as long as they complied with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Now a simple outing to the market is seen as a risk.
‘[President Hamid] Karzai is always shouting about democracy and saying everything is fine, but it’s just words,’ says Maria Farah, a mother-of-five. ‘If you meet women their faces are very sad. I don’t just mean two or three women – all our faces are very sad. And if you go to houses you will see the same faces on husbands as well because they cannot get jobs, they worry about security and they worry about their children.’
‘I can only talk about Kandahar city. I think life under the Taliban was very good. If we did not have a full stomach we could at least get some food and go to sleep. If we went out somewhere there were no problems,’ she continues.
‘How about now? If we go out we don’t know if we will arrive home or not. If there is an explosion and the Americans are passing they will just open fire on everyone.The security problems are too much here. If someone is driving on the highway they will be stopped and beheaded. If women leave the house when it is getting dark people look at them with a hatred in their eyes.’
The 33-year-old finished our conversation with a simple request.’Ask Bush to come here once and meet with women who want to tear his skin off,’ she says.
Soon after the Taliban first surfaced in Kandahar during the mid 1990s they brought peace to an area previously ruled by rival warlords.Today this is one of the most dangerous places in the country, with political and criminal violence spreading fear among the population. Suicide attacks now occur regularly here and a number of recent incidents have seen nervous Nato troops shoot civilians they mistakenly believe are about to blow themselves up. And whatever the actual cause of any bloodshed, Afghans almost always blame the foreign soldiers and local security forces.
‘Forget that a road has been built,’ says Haji Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder. ‘If a road has been built and you are killed, what good is it?
‘Everyone is a robber. I guarantee if you sit in my car and we go for a drive no Taliban will take you away. But I cannot guarantee you about the police. If they stop you they will steal your money and your camera.’
His friend, Abdul Hamid, shares similar concerns. All of his six sons are unemployed and he believes jihad is the only way forward for Afghanistan.
‘It’s much, much worse than when the Russians were here,’ the 71-year-old says. ‘At that time maybe we were scared a rocket would land on our house, but we were not scared of them coming into our house.
‘One of my sons wanted to join the military. I was not happy about that. I told him this country is fucked up, everyone is a robber and you have to make a stand and fight for the truth.’
Panjwayi is a Taliban stronghold in the west of Kandahar province. Last May US-led forces conducted an air strike on alleged insurgents in the district. US officials claimed as many as 80 militants might have been killed, but villagers at the scene said many of the casualties were civilians.
Mawlawi Abdul Hadid tells me 18 members of his family died in the raid. He says 30 innocent people were killed in all, the youngest of them a twoyear- old girl. ‘In the beginning you had only one enemy.Then you made two, then three and now I also stand against you,’ he declares. ‘You made me your enemy as well and I will stand against you.’
‘The Taliban are the sons of this country. My son is a Talib and your son is a Talib,’ the 45- year-old adds, gesturing towards another man in the room. ‘The Taliban are fighting for our rights, they are fighting for humanity and they are fighting for the truth. Day by day the Americans are losing support, but lots of people support the Taliban.’
Asked how long it would take to defeat the foreign soldiers, Hadid gives the kind of response heard increasingly across Afghanistan. ‘In Islam we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,’ he says.’But one thing we do know is that God brought them here and God will take them away.’
If Kandahar feels like it is on the brink of collapse, then the neighbouring province of Helmand has already disappeared into the abyss.The former head of Nato forces in Afghanistan, lieutenant general David Richards, described fighting there last summer as the worst British troops had faced since the Korean war.
According to insurgents, the situation is unbearable. They speak of villagers too scared to switch on their lights at night in case their homes are bombed in air strikes; bodies of civilians left rotting under piles of rubble; and members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance using their new roles in the Afghan army to persecute the Pashtun population.
‘The foreigners just sit in the desert and open fire from there. As soon as they get reports of Taliban they open fire, without checking,’ says Zahir Jan. ‘When they occupy an area they kill all the women and children. They do not even spare the animals, they kill them as well.’
Dressed in a shalwar kameez and green combat jacket, the 20-year-old is among three Talibs who made the journey from Helmand to meet me in Kandahar. It is too dangerous for western reporters to work independently in their province.
‘Everyone has picked up a gun. What else can we do? We cannot bear it anymore.When the foreigners first came we thought maybe they wanted to build the country, but what have they done in the last five years?’ he says.
‘They have done nothing, so we have to stand against them. They have killed lots of innocent people, occupied the country and we now know that jihad is demanded of us.’
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