Kandahar's Frontier of Sorrow - Part 1

The Taliban's war-scarred former stronghold is marked by rubble, wariness, and a weary impatience for the promised rebuilding to begin

By Manjeet Kripalani

The airstrip at Kandahar in Afghanistan is baking. It's hot, about 100F, the sun blazing relentlessly on the surrounding mountains, harsh, naked, and burnt-brown after four years of drought. There's no beauty here, except the well-measured flatness of the airstrip, built by Americans in 1959 -- and then rebuilt after October, 2001, when the U.S. took Kandahar from the Taliban.

As I step from the U.N. Humanitarian Assistance Services aircraft that brought me from Kabul, I squint into the sun, remembering the last time I saw this airstrip. It was on Indian TV in the last days of December, 1999, when India's then-Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, walked across this field carrying a suitcase filled with $20 million in small notes, which he handed to armed Taliban in exchange for the lives of more than 200 Indian passengers on board an Indian Airlines aircraft that had been hijacked en route from Katmandu to Delhi by Al Qaeda terrorists. An ominous prelude to the 21st century, it struck me that the easy success of that operation might have emboldened Al Qaeda to launch the audacious attacks of September 11.


  Then it's déjà vu: In the distance, two men in Afghan clothing are walking toward us. I almost expect to see rifles in their hands. But one makes a clearly un-Afghan move by embracing, in a bear hug, one of the young women who disembarked with me from the aircraft. It's an amazing sight -- especially when I see a long brown braid tumble from behind the head of the embracer.

I learn later that the hugger isn't a man at all, but former National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes, now the field director of Afghans for Civil Society, an organization set up by Qayum Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamied Karzai, to help his countrymen relearn how to live in an open society -- a modern, democratic, free country. Sarah has come to welcome her assistant, Rangina Hamidi, who is back from the U.S. and India, where she has been selling the beautiful embroidery done only by Kandahari women. Chayes is the kind of person who makes humanity proud and America welcome here in Afghanistan.

We get into waiting jeeps and minibuses, which will take us to an undisclosed destination. Kandahar is an unsafe town, where things are done furtively, so as not to arouse interest. I'm here with a group of 41 women, who have come from all over Afghanistan to attend a conference on women's rights and Afghanistan's new constitution, now being drafted. The conference has been organized by Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based group formed by expat Afghans and non-Afghan women to help their sisters shed the burqa and claim their financial and legal rights under the new rule of law. It's quite a bold stroke, holding the conference in the former stronghold of the backward and brutal Taliban.


  At the airport gates, I see the only signs of the U.S. presence in my trip to this city. The Americans have taken over Kandahar airport -- the airfields and surrounding buildings. They are bunkered just within the airport gates. In sand-colored fatigues and sporting sunglasses, they are out of the sun, sitting erect in their vehicles beneath tent-like awnings. They look at the buses stonily. Who knows, we could be the enemy. Hidden behind burqas, 41 defenseless women.

The sight of the soldiers gives me a sense of security -- which quickly vanishes once we're out of the gates. For as we approach, Kandahar is like nothing I've ever seen. It's a city of rubble, roads have hardly any bitumen, the buildings are brick-and-mud ruins. The townscape is flat, desolate, dusty. In front of me is a jagged, sad little hill. An Afghan woman from the northern state of Badakshan, who speaks a little English, says to me, "Isn't that beautiful?" I nod politely, but my first impression is not one of beauty.

Then she pulls out a photo album and shows me pictures of a young man -- her son, she says -- who has been missing for two years, after being shanghaied by the Taliban and sent off to fight people with whom he had no quarrel. She suspects he is in a Taliban jail in Pakistan. The tears roll down her cheeks. By Manjeet Kripalani


  The sorrow never ends in Afghanistan. Every Afghan has lost someone dear in the last 25 years -- fighting against the Soviets, the mujahideen, the Taliban, the Pakistanis, the warlords. And fighting against poverty.

The Taliban were driven out of Kandahar almost two years ago by U.S. forces, and the U.N. and assorted international aid agencies swept in. But the fight continues because the promised rebuilding has been slow, and the world's attention was diverted to Iraq.

Afghanistan became a sideshow. So now the warlords are back, vicious and rapacious. The Taliban is back, too, terrorizing the area. The Pakistanis are back to their old game of wanting to make an even poorer Afghanistan their colony, many Afghans feel. And the West's promise to reconstruct the country hasn't been kept.

Of the $5.1 billion that was promised to Afghanistan after the Taliban's ouster, to be spread over five years, only about $2 billion has come through. Afghan officials tell me that hardly any of that funding -- a pittance next to the $87 billion President George Bush wants to spend in Iraq -- has found its way to the formal rebuilding of the country. Most seems not to have gone much beyond Kabul, the capital. Kandahar, certainly, shows little evidence of that cash.


  The U.S. and the U.N. will have to do better. According to the World Bank, Afghanistan needs at least $15 billion over the next five years if it is to recover and stand on its own. Masood Khalili, the Afghan ambassador to India and close friend of assassinated Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Masood, estimates the rebuilding costs at closer to $35 billion. Just 15% of the damage from decades of war has been repaired, he says. There are schools to be built, hospitals to equip, roads to be created or repaved, power lines to string, telephone service to provide.

In Kandahar, some power lines have been restored by the U.S., and cell-phone service is available, but it's expensive -- 55 cents a minute -- and spotty. Some of the ministry offices in the provinces still don't have proper roofs. Driving from Kabul to Kandahar takes 18 hours -- instead of the mere 6 hours it would require if the highway was up to standard.

We arrive at our destination, where the women's conference is being held. It's a large compound, with a multi-roomed, two-story building that is tucked away behind 14-foot walls and fiercely guarded by armed Afghan men. Their guns appear heavy -- I wonder how they can run with them.

We're put up, dormitory-style, on the first floor. Several of us to a room, with small mattresses on the floor, on which we sit and sleep, Afghan-style. The amenities are basic. But it feels like a palace, compared to what we have seen outside. We are fed, right away, with the traditional Afghan fare of chick-peas, okra, and eggplant. It is delicious.

To be continued in Part 2 on Monday, Sept. 15.

Kripalani is BusinessWeek's Bombay bureau chief

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE