12 December 2014

American Spy Blimp Now Flies Over the Former Home of Taliban Leader Mullah Omar in Kandahar

Declan Walsh
December 10, 2014

Made Rich by U.S. Presence, Many in Kandahar Now Face an Uncertain Future

A Pakistani laborer on the roof of a villa in the Aino Mino gated community, home to many of the newly prosperous residents of Kandahar, Afghanistan. CreditBryan Denton for The New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Floating over the tightly clustered homes and streets buzzing with rickshaws is the most visible symbol of the fading Western legacy in this onetime fortress of Taliban rule: a giant white balloon, bristling with photo lenses and listening equipment. The surveillance blimp is tethered to the former home of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, which for the past 13 years has been a base for the C.I.A. and the Afghan paramilitary forces.

Officials say there are no immediate plans to close that complex, the last Western military base inside the city limits. And so, what remains of the Western presence is marked by this all-seeing eye, watching over Afghanistan’s second city as it jolts into an uncertain post-American future.

For years, Kandahar has been a testing ground for Western counterinsurgency ideas. The first American troops arrived in late 2001, seizing control of a city where Mullah Omar had once, in a dramatic flourish, wrapped himself in a sacred cloak and declared himself the “leader of the faithful.”

The Aino Mina area of Kandahar. For now, a fragile peace is holding, with heavily armed police on virtually every corner. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Now, the Americans and other foreign troops are gone, mostly, departing in a procession of planes that has emptied Kandahar Air Field, the sprawling military mini-city on the city’s eastern edge. They leave behind a skittish city, torn between fear and hope. A fragile peace is holding, with heavily armed police on virtually every corner, but there is also a sense of regret for the lost opportunities of the past decade, and apprehension that what gains have occurred may be rapidly wiped away. Gleaming four-wheel-drive vehicles pack the courtyards of auto showrooms on the city’s outskirts, where the lines of dust-smeared shops meet the sandy desert. These sport utility vehicles, many of them armor-plated, are the transport of choice for the minority of Afghans who have profited handsomely since 2001 — the contractors and con men, politicians and drug smugglers. The most powerful of them have fit several of those descriptions at once, although not all have survived to tell the tale.

A giant photograph over a traffic junction in the city center commemorates the half-shaven figure of Ahmed Wali Karzai, a half brother of the former president Hamid Karzai who was for many years considered the political godfather of Kandahar. He died in 2011, shot by a trusted security guard who struck as Mr. Karzai walked out of his own bathroom, for reasons that are not fully understood.

Tooryalai Wesa has been luckier. Sitting behind a cluttered desk in his wood-paneled office, Mr. Wesa, the provincial governor, claimed to have survived 10 Taliban attacks since coming to power in 2008, most recently in July when suicide bombers tried to storm his compound during a meeting with American commanders. Still, Mr. Wesa, a Canadian-educated former aid worker, was determined to put a brave face on Afghanistan’s coming “transition decade,” as Western donors call it. He outlined his ambitious plans to turn the military air base into a regional aviation hub, and insisted that Kandahar had become a more prosperous, safer city, with new roads, sewage systems and mobile phone networks.

“Slowly but surely, things are happening,” he said. “But 10 years is not enough for a country coming out of war.”

His immediate concern, though, was simply to keep the lights on. Kandahar’s electricity comes from two giant generators that the United States military donated in 2010, as part of a much-promoted counterinsurgency strategy. But those generators have, until now, relied on American-funded supplies of diesel, and that subsidy is rapidly declining. Diesel supplies have halved since June, American officials say, and will end next September.

Critics say the power generators typify military-run projects: expensive, driven by short-term goals and ultimately unsustainable. But they are the only option for residents until at least 2017, when a new power line is supposed to be completed. Until then they will have to pay their own bills. The question is whether the city’s wartime nouveau riche will pay their fair share.

“Already now, the city power brokers are refusing to pay their bills,” Mr. Wesa grumbled. “They claim to be good Muslims, with nice turbans and prayer beads. But they treat electricity like it’s their automatic right.”

Gul Agha Sherzai had other concerns. Coughing and spluttering during a meeting at his palatial home a few streets away, he reached for a cigarette. “My son is getting married,” he said, excusing his groggy state. “So I was up until 4 in the morning.”

A burly former warlord of famously lavish tastes, Mr. Sherzai stormed into Kandahar as the Taliban fled in 2001 and quickly established himself as an important American ally. Money and influence followed.

His relatives won lucrative security contracts to protect the city air base, and Mr. Sherzai’s influence steadily grew until he stood for this year’s presidential election. That failed, and now, finding himself in the political wilderness, he has cast himself in the unlikely garb of a warrior for democracy.

“Governance is broken in this country,” he said sternly. “We want schools, not graveyards for the dead.”

Still, Mr. Sherzai had clearly done well. He sat in an ornately decorated reception hall dominated by a chandelier the size of a small car. A fleet of armored S.U.V.s was parked outside.

He rose from his seat. Enough politics, he said; the wedding was continuing. Mr. Sherzai led the way to a lunch he was hosting at the Taj Mahal Saloon, a chic, glass-fronted wedding hall where hundreds of men, many wearing turbans, gathered around platters of soft lamb and sweet rice. In keeping with Pashtun tradition, not a single woman was present — not even the bride.

Instead, Mr. Sherzai warmly embraced the tribal elders who swarmed around his table, relishing the opportunity to showcase his influence. “You see,” one of his aides, who had spent much of the morning praising Mr. Sherzai, whispered in my ear, “none of these guests have been searched by security because Mr. Sherzai trusts them so much. It shows how he is a true leader.”

Given the frequency of attacks in recent years by militants hiding bombs in their turbans and guns in the soles of their shoes, I took this as a little foolhardy, and my cue to leave.

Other Kandaharis who have profited from the American decade are feeling more vulnerable. Later, I met an old friend who would speak only anonymously because he is working for an American aid organization and feared reprisals. Over the years, he had worked with American aid groups, soldiers and news media organizations and made good money, he said.

But in recent years, as the Taliban had pushed back into the districts surrounding Kandahar, their threats had forced him to abandon his family home in Arghandab, a supposedly safe district north of the city. The insurgents called him an American spy, he said, and chief among the accusers was his cousin, who had become a local Taliban commander.

Now, my friend lived in Aino Mina, a gated community that is home to many of Kandahar’s newly minted rich. With its smart apartment blocks and neat rows of mansions, Aino Mina has become the city’s best address.

Still, my friend was worried. “The Americans may be going home,” he said. “But my cousin is going nowhere.”

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