The mention of Afghanistan’s second-largest city conjures up a collage of terrorist training camps, rugged terrain, warlords, narcotics, fierce tribes and the War on Terror. Its strategic and political importance is understood by the Pashtun proverb: ‘Control Kandahar and you’ll control Afghanistan’. This was a lesson that Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and even the Russians failed to learn. Unfortunately since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the security situation in the city and surrounding areas has deteriorated significantly to the point where there was an average of one suicide bombing a week in 2006. Although the current players, Afghan and international, understand the significance of controlling Kandahar this Holy Grail continues to elude them.
Despite the violence surrounding them the Kandaharis continue their daily lives, albeit lived with restrictions and a level of fear. Women continue to be the most affected – few women are seen in public on the streets of Kandahar and if ever you do see one the majority will be wearing the nylon burqa. Life for the women of Kandahar is invariably lived behind the high walls of their family compounds with few girls being given permission to attend school still, despite reports in the media extolling the liberation of girls since the arrival of democracy.
Older Kandaharis will tell you about the times before the Russian invasion, when they hosted hippies taking the overland trail in the guesthouses that lined the streets around Chowk-e Shaheedan. Although it may be some time before Kandahar is ready for independent travellers again, it is clear that the NGO, international organisation and contractor communities are desperately needed to improve the lives of Kandaharis. Although millions of aid dollars have been spent in the area, insecurity and corruption have prevented it reaching many people.
In years to come there is no doubt that travellers will enjoy views over Kandahar from the Forty Steps, Pashtun hospitality at picnics in the Arghandab Valley and visits to the Mosque of the Sacred Cloak.