The first time I set foot in southern Afghanistan was unforgettable. Groggy and jet-lagged from an overseas flight, I landed at Kandahar Airfield, where the Canadian Forces had set up camp the previous year.
No sooner had I reached the media tent than a stern-faced public affairs officer approached. There had been a casualty, she told us. He had survived but was being flown out with severe injuries.
I didn't know till much later that it was the son of someone I knew. His foot had been blown off by an IED during a night mission.
That was four years ago.
Since the beginning of Task Force Kandahar , as the contingent of Canadian and international forces based in the southern province of Kandahar is known, in 2006, nearly 160 Canadians have died. In that time, 9,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. Kandahar is soon to be military history for Canadians. From that first afternoon until my most recent trip to Kandahar in March, much has changed — and also so little.
Kandahar construction booming
Kandahar today has shades of a boomtown, albeit a medieval boomtown in parts, with its share of gang-like violence — in this case, carried out by insurgents. War dollars are flowing into a huge syringe going straight into the city's economic artery. I've never seen so much heavy construction machinery: cranes, flatbed trucks, huge hoists, more convoys of heavy trucks than armoured ones. Heavy industrial yards line the main highway now.
Much of the economic steroid is coming from the U.S. troop surge into southern Afghanistan more than a year ago. And there are real concerns that contractors who live nowhere near Kandahar are reaping, some say stealing, the profits. But the place looks like a build zone.
If you believe people like the chair of the provincial council of Kandahar province, Ahmed Wali Karzai, security is much better, too.
That's a mugs game. For the average Kandahari, not even the world's mightiest armies have been able to stop the carnage. Today, police trained by NATO forces have to be protected by the military when they go collect their paycheques at a local bank.
The insurgents who five years ago fought Canadians in the rural areas in Operation Medusa now attack in the city, often targeting their own countrymen. They're trying to pluck off the leadership of Kandahar: two deputy mayors have been assassinated in the last 11 months; two deputy chiefs of police have been killed; and even a cook who worked for the governor of the province has fallen victim to the violence.
Terror hasn't changed all that much in Kandahar; if anything, it's gotten closer to home.
Back in 2008, I spent a morning at Sarpoza prison — Afghanistan's second largest. Canada had invested money and expertise into improving the security and management of the prison in Kandahar. In June of that same year, insurgents blew open the front gate, freeing hundreds of prisoners.
The international community huddled, more money from donors was found. Never again, officials promised. Then this spring, the prison bust open again. This time, the attack came by way of a tunnel, dug for months under the noses of Afghan security forces and the U.S. troops who are helping secure the city.
Not so much had changed, it seemed.
What has changed might not be recognized for another decade. There are the beginnings of an educated female class. Girls are going to school now – just not all of them, about 37 per cent. And only in the urban areas. I've met lots of mothers who are sending their girls to school and lots of young women who are training to be teachers.
Canada has invested in a teachers college in Kandahar — in particular, in building women's dorms so they can travel to the college from the rural areas to train and have somewhere to stay. That project came about in part because of the determination of Kandahar's governor, Toor Wesa, an Afghan Canadian, and his wife, whose own daughters were highly educated in Canada. Wesa returned to Kandahar to encourage similar opportunities for higher education there.
Kabul a different world from south
Kabul, which I visited in 2009 for the national elections, is like a different world from the south. Women wear business suits and not near as many burkas. Upstart television programs are taking on subjects that were taboo not long ago, such as domestic abuse, divorce and open political debate.
But every year that I returned to Kabul, the security barriers got higher, thicker and more numerous. Suicide bombings, while not as frequent, still strike terror. And the city is breaking down under its population explosion and pollution.
But there is electricity — a big change. It is so common now that evening food markets string bright neon orange, yellow and green lights over their stalls. It looks festive. And in Kabul, which is now secured by Afghan security forces, you don't see as many armed convoys of international forces.
The government of Afghanistan has been the country's one constant, particularly, its president, Hamid Karzai, who was appointed interim leader in 2001, first elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2009.
The perception of him hasn't changed in that time. For many, he is a weak ineffectual leader; for others, he is the only choice to lead a still-divided country.
Canada will end its combat mission in Afghanistan in July and take up a training-only mission some time after that. Its effort in Afghanistan has not been futile — not at all — but there is much in the country that remains unchanged, and that is a worrying legacy.