Kandahar's Scenic Route

ARGHANDAB - The Royal 22e RĂ©giment, based in Quebec City, provides the bulk of the force to the Canadian Battle Group in Kandahar province. Known as the "Van Doos," for the Quebecois pronunciation of "22nd" or vingt-deux, they are Canada's premiere Francophone fighting force and, for this year's fighting season in southern Afghanistan, the sharp edge of the Canadian military sword. For the next week, I will be on a joint US/Afghan/Canadian operation with the Canadian Battle Group in Khakriz, a district of Kandahar province where the Taliban have operated with impunity for years now.

First we have to get to Khakriz. We start at Kandahar Air Field (KAF), the monstruously large airport built by the US in the 1950s as a refueling point between the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Soviet airports in Central Asia were off-limits, so the long runway and hideous terminal (it looks like a clay model first-draft of the marginally less ugly Dulles) were meant to accommodate passengers passing from Beirut, say, to Bangkok. By the time the airport was finished, though, Boeing's 707 had come to dominate commercial travel, and unlike previous planes it needed no Central Asian stop. For most of the airfield's existence, then, it has served as a military base for occupying powers, and only secondarily as a civil aviation folly project on the outskirts of a city that needed an airport only a fraction of its size.

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Kandahar Air Field.

The gap between airport and city is a fatal one. More than once at KAF I have heard the muffled thump of an attack just meters outside the gates, usually a suicide bomber who tries to kill a trucker or Afghan day-laborer or NATO soldier. Further down the road to Kandahar city -- a path Pashtuns call "Bloody Road" -- are Afghan checkpoints with scarred earth and twisted guardrails that mark the sites of previous car-bombs. The trip is not a long one -- just half an hour at most -- but it can feel long if you happen to be the one sticking your head out of the armored vehicle, on guard for cars that come too close, or roadside objects that may or may not be set to explode. The worst stretch is the populated area near the city center:

Downtown Kandahar looks much as it did a year ago, with one major difference: everywhere large posters urge Afghans to vote for this or that presidential candidate. None seems to have overwhelming coverage. Hamid Karzai is reasonably well represented, but Abdullah Abdullah has a surprisingly strong presence as well, considering his Tajik affiliation and relative lack of Pashtun credibility. Last month in Lashkar Gah as well, Anup and I found several people who volunteered that they supported Abdullah as a protest candidate against Karzai.

Afghan election billboard, July 2009
Afghan election billboard, July 2009
Afghan election billboard, July 2009
Afghan election billboard, July 2009

What is constantly amazing, in Kandahar as in Baghdad so many other urban war zones, is how humdrum and normal the commercial life of the streets remains. Those who portray Kandahar as beset by marauding gangs of assassins, or as a years-long firefight, are not exactly wrong: the violence has been unrelenting, and any foreigner risks being sold and kidnapped if he chooses his security foolishly. But if that impression is the sole one, it will omit notice of shiny glass shopping complexes, international travel agencies, and prosperous and well-stocked pharmacies, and roads with actual traffic cops.

It is extremely difficult to convey this persistence of commerce and everyday life without sounding naive, like the visitors to 2003 Baghdad who pronounced the city recovery-bound because shops were open and selling name-brand sodas. Kandahar has a good claim to be the worst big city in the world (if you have other candidates -- Mogadishu? Pyongyang? -- please propose them in the comments), but it is a place where in the course of a single rather uncomplicated afternoon you could buy aspirin, eat a nice sit-down meal of pilaf and Fanta, try on a stylish red dress, and reserve a round-trip ticket to Manchester, England. Not many war zones resemble Stalingrad anymore, certainly not this one.