Staying Apart

Distance can be cruel. Separation may only be the beginning of our problems, but it is almost certainly the root. I don't believe in a 'clash of civilisations', except in the sense that we ourselves create similar dynamics with our actions.

This distance is easily found in Kandahar: Kabul is 305 miles away by road (that you can't take because it is too dangerous) or an hour by plane. The urgency of the situation in southern Afghanistan is not evident when you pass through government offices in Kabul, nor is it readily apparent in Kandahar itself. The main staging area for foreign troops in the south is Kandahar Airfield or KAF, itself some 11 miles away from Kandahar City. As you can see in the video above, there is also a separation on the roads, where convoys pass by local traffic as if from another planet.

Language is another problem: foreigners for the most part don't speak Pashtu, and I found that the Afghan translators employed by foreign troops aren't always Pashtu speakers either -- I went to Arghandab a few weeks ago and found only one translator who seemed to have a firm command; the rest knew a few words before lapsing into Dari.

Then when we talk about the Taliban, there are misunderstandings on both 'sides'. Obama's objectives -- despite all the drawn out policy reviews and speeches intended to delineate exactly these -- are opaque to almost everyone down here. Similarly when it is the turn of foreigners to look in and assess the long-term goals of 'the Taliban'.

Journalists themselves are separated from the people in Kandahar:

I'm worried Lang's death will lead to further scaling back of reporting from Afghanistan.

As it is, Canadians already get a limited view of Afghanistan. The handful of Canadian reporters who do cover the country are based at the NATO base at the Kandahar airfield and save occasional trips to Kabul, Canadian reporters are rarely assigned to cover stories outside the Canadian zone of operations.

[From Why reporters should stay in Afghanistan]

It was with these issues in mind that I travelled to Arghestan today. It's only two hours drive from Kandahar City to the district centre in Arghestan, but you'd be lucky to find someone who'll go with you. This is not to say that the district is dangerous -- far from it in fact -- but that the distances are an obstacle even for Afghans.

Arghestan district, Kandahar province

The road out to the district centre is newly-built and, according to the district chief, one of the main development projects which have been carried out in the district since he took over some three years ago. Only in a few areas did our driver have some worries about passing through safely; for most parts of the road we were completely undisturbed -- there was even very little traffic heading to and from Arghestan.

I'll save the details of this trip for a separate article I'm writing for publication elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Arghestan poses a number of interesting questions: why, in the first place, is the district one of the few places in Kandahar province where you can travel so freely? Is it indeed, as many allege, because the insurgency uses Arghestan as a pathway between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, transporting wounded fighters and other supplies, or because their is some sort of unspoken deal ('don't scratch my back and I won't scratch yours')? Is the almost complete absence of foreigners (and I imply money and development projects as part of this) a reason for the calmness in the district, or is the calmness a reason for the absence of foreigners and their money?

I certainly didn't come back from the brief trip with any firm answers on these questions. The district chief seems to be a good choice, doing useful work and liked by the people. Arghestan, we should remember, is Afghanistan's second biggest district by area, and for someone to be able to keep the lid on the situation (with only 80 policemen assigned to the district, reduced from 138 last year) is at least worthy of our attention and careful assessment.

Back in the City, people are depressed and seem to have lost any of the little hope they had a few months ago -- back when we were all waiting for a 'new' strategy that was actually 'new'; back when it seemed people had become serious about Afghanistan.

Recent weeks have brought their own changes and surprises: the head of the Mohammadzai tribal shura, a friend of Felix and I, was kidnapped just over a week ago from Ayno Meena, one of the safer areas around the City. A policeman was shot dead in Wesh, a residential area located close to Spin Boldak district centre, shattering illusions of what local people thought of as one of the last safe areas in Kandahar; people stopped going out at night for a week after the policeman was shot.

It seems nowhere is safe any more, least of all the city.