The faded prettiness of its old town used to belie the fact that Kandahar was a city gripped by fear. Unlike Kabul, the rising tide of violence was less frequently used as an excuse to smother the colonnades and tree-lined boulevards in reinforced concrete. That has changed now. Suicide bombers targeted the jail and police headquarters in February, leaving 35 dead and over 50 wounded. A Canadian photographer in the city on the night of that attack said that people were “genuinely scared. These men hear explosions every third or fourth day and they were shaken. The fear was really palpable that all hell was breaking loose and nothing was going to stop it.”
As a result, roads are now shut and the drab march of blast barriers has begun. It is just one sign that things are getting worse. Foreigners cannot walk down the street or stop in the bazaar to gauge the local climate. Meetings invariably take place in private rooms deep inside fortified compounds. Yet for some reason, Kandaharis continue to risk talking to journalists in the knowledge that what they say might get them killed.
“Yes, I’m scared,” Haji Mohammad Zahir, a villager who moved to Kandahar to work in construction, told The Independent. “When I was coming in I was scared because the insurgents are watching. Maybe some of them looked at me, and will call tonight asking why I am meeting with foreigners.”
Nor is it just the Taliban who are the problem. Criminal syndicates wage their own terror campaign, allegedly killing business rivals, upstarts and those who speak out against them. The deaths of several prominent campaigners, such as the women’s rights advocate Sitara Ackakzai, have been unofficially linked to the mafia rather than the Taliban.
“I won’t say the names of these people but everyone knows who they are,” one man told me. “There are two or three people at Kandahar airfield and maybe 10 in Kandahar City. You can’t say anything about these guys. The government is involved with them.”