KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – In Kandahar, a poverty-racked city of mud walls and thatch roofs, suicide bombers prowl and a charismatic young governor derided by critics as corrupt and immoral has lost the confidence of both his constituents and the Canadian military.
Five hundred kilometres away in the gridlocked metropolis of blaring horns and outstretched hands that is Kabul, Canada and Kandahar together wait for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to do something about his problematic political emissary, Asadullah Khalid.
“I don’t want him to even be a politician in the next government of Afghanistan,” Malalay Ishaqzai, a politician from Kandahar who sits as a member of the Afghan national assembly, said in an interview with The Canadian Press in Kabul.
“He should be removed from the government and not given any other province or any other job. He’s a useless person for the people of Kandahar.”
It’s a prime example of how the story of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has become a tale of two cities.
Many blame Khalid for the fact Kandahar city seems trapped in a cycle of poverty and peril, a place where only the truly desperate are willing to brave the threat of bombings and suicide attacks to try to eke out a living on the streets.
Abdul Qahir, 32, who makes a meagre living selling cooked grains, uses the proceeds to support his two elderly parents – a common lament in a country where multiple generations often live under one roof.
“I can’t save a single penny for the future,” said Qahir.
In a country where a man’s average life expectancy is just 43 years, Qahir can’t help but have a fatalistic attitude. “In Afghanistan, it is a very uncertain situation because of extremist Taliban and foreign troops …. Sooner or later, we are going to die.”
At first glance, Kabul appears the polar opposite of its primitive southern cousin, Kandahar.
A city of nearly three million people in the shadow of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul is the one place in Afghanistan where the daily bustle and shove seems reminiscent of a modern North American metropolis.
Buildings of glass and steel rise out of the downtown core, where a cosmopolitan crowd packs the shops and bazaars. Jeans, T-shirts and three-piece suits jostle with burkas and the billowy salwar kameez. Merchants sell bags of grain alongside DVDs and MP3 players.
But there is misery in Kabul too.
Women hunched under burkas sit cross-legged in the bazaars, their hands outstretched. Beggars of every age tap desperately on car windows in hopes of a few Afghanis, the local currency. One filthy young girl of about 10 looks close to tears as she gestures towards her mouth with her fingers.
In a section of old Kabul known as Murad Khani, a former cultural and economic hub, families sit on the sidewalk outside a mosque, hoping for scraps of bread from customers as they emerge from a nearby bakery.
“There are no jobs – that is the problem here,” said Janali, a 55-year-old man who works as a carpenter. Like many Afghans, he goes by only one name.
Inflation is rampant, Janali said. The price of a piece of bread in Kabul doubled over the span of about three days last week, to 20 Afghanis, or roughly 40 Canadian cents. “Day by day, it is increasing.”
Driving in Kabul is an exercise in survival.
Motorists merge with nary a sideways glance as police officers blithely flail their arms in gridlocked traffic, keeping up appearances more than anything else. Motorcyclists and bicycles weave expertly through the paralysis, narrowly missing pedestrians who dart mindlessly between the cars.
All the activity suggests a greater sense of security in Kabul than in Kandahar, but it masks a deep-seated fear that seems inescapable in Afghanistan.
“Whenever I am coming out from home in the morning, I don’t believe I may go home alive, because the security is not good,” said an 18-year-old Kabul University student with excellent English who gave her name as Angela.
When she’s not going to her first-year law classes, Angela works at the United Nations offices on the road to Jalalabad, where NATO troops – known collectively as the International Security Assistance Force – present a tempting target for insurgents.
“ISAF forces are a lot active on that way. It is not safe for me. Even my family, they are not happy to let me go out, but I have to go and fulfil my family’s need.”
A pointed reminder of the danger came April 27 when Taliban insurgents opened fire on a parade to mark the anniversary of the end of the Soviet invasion, killing three people and wounding at least eight in what a Taliban spokesman described as an attempt on Karzai’s life.
And in January, six people died during a brazen Taliban attack on the Kabul Serena, a five-star downtown hotel favoured by dignitaries, diplomats and visiting western VIPs. The hotel is now fortified by 24-hour police guards and two heavily armoured gates.
“We cannot say it is completely safe,” Angela said. “In Kabul, there were lots of explosions, bomb attackers and suicide attacks.”
Despite the obvious poverty, there is evidence of money in Kabul: students crowd the front gates at Kabul University, multi-storeyed homes line parts of the Kabul River and the odd Mercedes can be seen making its way down the pitted streets.
That has a lot to do with the fact that it’s easier to get an education in Kabul than it is elsewhere, said Palwasha Shaheed Kakar, the Afghan government’s deputy minister of finance.
“If there is education in one part of the country, of course people will learn the way to do business, giving benefit to the government, to the people of the country, because they have the knowledge of how to survive,” Kakar said in an interview.
“They don’t have that much education in Kandahar compared with Kabul.”
At a clutch of tiny shops in Kabul known to locals as the “Bush Bazaar,” named for the U.S. president because of the number of products that come from the U.S. military base in nearby Bagram, shopkeepers lament the state of business.
“There’s not much good profit, but that’s a normal thing,” said Mohammad Nain, 24. “We don’t have much good profit, but enough to pass the time – enough to survive.”
The shopkeepers of the Bush Bazaar were nearly shut down last month by the government but managed to keep their doors open by bribing government officials, Nain said.
In Kabul, there is a widening gap between rich and poor.
“The government is doing nothing for the economy, and they are providing nothing to the poor people of Afghanistan,” Nain complained.
“They only take care of the people who are ric h.”
In Kandahar, the real economy is largely underground, said Kakar – driven by local “businessmen” who thrive on the lack of security, which enables them to more easily smuggle drugs out of the country.
“There are expert businessmen in Kandahar, but we can’t call them businessmen because they’re doing illegal things – smuggling and these sorts of things,” she said.
“They don’t want the security to come to Afghanistan, because if there is security, if there is peace in the country, the government would have the power to stop everything and business would go down.”
Many lay the blame for Kandahar’s economic and social paralysis squarely at the feet of Khalid, who has been the target of a persistent, if quiet, campaign by both local elders and Canadian officials to have him removed.
When he slipped up earlier this month and called publicly for Khalid’s ouster, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier inadvertently thwarted the entire process and cries went up in Ottawa for his resignation. Sources close to the government expect Khalid to remain in power for at least the next six months.
Interestingly, the reaction among locals in Kandahar to Bernier’s remarks was one of hope as locals realized someone was paying attention.
“It’s a very good step that Canada took,” Ishaqzai said.
“I want America and other countries as well to send these sorts of ministers to visit and say the same thing, take the same action.”
-With files from A.R. Khan in Kandahar