The Scene In Kandahar

The fronts of the houses in Kandahar used to glow from the light of hanging lanterns. But these days, not many people are venturing out at night to see them. The Taliban may no longer control their spiritual home and final stronghold, but their recent departure has hardly sent Afghans out to celebrate in the streets. Many civilians who fled the fighting still haven't returned, shops are closed all over town--and residents are especially afraid of a return to the warlordism that so marked this city before the Taliban took power. "All these people do is fight with each other," says Abdul, a farmer from Helmand, about four hours drive east of Kandahar. "This is a chance for them to get power."

Just days ago, Gov. Gul Agha and another local commander, Naqui Bullah, were still fighting for control of the city. Hamid Karzai, named as interim president of Afghanistan at the recent United Nations-brokered talks in Bonn, arrived over the weekend. And while locals say small groups of Taliban fighters left shortly after Karzai turned up, most have simply returned to their homes with the new president's blessing. "Where did all the Taliban go?" asks Ahmed, a recently returned refugee. "They didn't escape, they just joined the other people with the guns."

Until he left for Kabul today, Karzai was trying to instill a sense of peace in Kandahar. With the help of American forces, he installed himself in the former home of the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. Omar has gone to ground, but the sculpture left behind in the yard of his compound is an apt symbol of the regime he helped to create--and the destruction he left behind. A huge metal representation of a tree, limbed, broken and uprooted lay in the midst of a stony parking lot. Curious Afghans carrying old Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers wandered around, staring at the ugly spectacle.

The residence that Omar unwillingly bequeathed to Harzai is hardly as austere as the Mullah's ideology. In fact, it seems more like something out of Hansel and Gretel. Pastel-colored designs cover the white-washed walls, and one section depicts a battle scene with two fighter jets racing through the sky. A mosque sits on one side of the road, the minarets painted bright blue and yellow. Omar's complex of "guest houses" still sit intact amidst a wide swath of rubble and broken, crumbling walls. The front wall is riddled with bullet holes. And a courtyard in the back is marked by a massive bomb crater, while the walls of the adjoining buildings are cracked, ready to fall alongside the rooftops that already lie on the ground. The compound is crowded, too, with Omar's would-be killers, turncoat Taliban and enterprising local warlords all seeking to cash in on the new power structure in Kandahar.

The American forces are strongly in evidence. Soldiers patrol in jeeps with blown-out windshields and Toyota trucks of the sort bin Laden was fond of giving to his Al Qaeda lieutenants. In one of the guest houses, American Army special forces have set up shop. They wouldn't say just why they were there, but they clearly have a mission. Behind their quarters this morning, three of them were huddled around a fire that burned in a tin drum garbage can, feeding cardboard into the flames. Notes had been written on the cardboard and words like "Search" and "Form New Government," scrawled in neat script with black ink, were visible.

Other soldiers strolled tensely around the compound wearing camouflage baseball hats and toting M-4 assault rifles. Americans speaking the local Pashtun language yelled at photographers not to take pictures, confiscating the digital cards and batteries of one who got too close. Across Kandahar, GIs made a show of strength as they made their way to the palace of Gul Agha, the former governor who kept his post only by marching into the city after being excluded from last week's key meetings.

Through a series of back room deals, Agha was comfortably installed on the plush floors of his palace last night, surrounded by carpets and hordes of nervous-looking guards. One of the American trucks headed to Agha's palace had a sticker on the back that read I Love NY. Unlike at the Bagram Airbase in Kabul, where several hundred members of the elite 10th Mountain Division were scrambling to jumpstart their hearts and minds campaign among the Afghans and organize a humanitarian aid project, the soldiers in Kandahar seemed to be preparing for something else.

Marines from the Rhino Base, some 60 miles south of Kandahar crept towards the city today in their continuing search for the remaining elements of bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. And late last night, a helicopter made a low run over the city, arousing suspicions among locals about what the Americans might be planning. "I really couldn't say," chuckles one soldier, pointing out the barren hills around the compound. Earlier today, truckloads full of armed Afghans patrolled the alleyways and checkpoints with heavy artillery mounted on the rears of their pickups.

It's difficult to decipher all the signs that remain from the confusion and destruction that have left their mark on this city. On walls all around town, the name OMAR was sketched in blue block letters like some sort of advertisement. At a dusty and halfway-deserted checkpoint on the road leading to Kabul, a sign let passersby know that an artificial insemination center was available for their needs. In the small village of Karz, where Karzai spent his early childhood, shoeless children ran through the dusty tracks, scraping their hands along the crumbling walls. "No cigarettes here," they cried, "But if you want hashish, that's no problem." They scattered down along the road, running to and fro through the ruins.

Back at Karzai's complex, locals talked about their hopes for the future. Abdul Wali came to the compound to "congratulate" Karzai--and also to get a job. "When there is peace, I will become a soldier," he said proudly. "I want 1,000 men, and I want to be a commander. I'll defend Afghanistan against foreigners like the Pakistanis and the Iranians and the Russians." And the Americans? "America is our friend," he said, nervously eyeing the soldiers as they elbowed their way through crowds to help move some of their men out through the gates on the back of a pickup.

Other Afghans sat down in the shadows of Omar's former mosque. Some spoke bitterly about journalists who were smoking during the Ramadan fast. Others asked for cigarettes. And all of them watched for the door of the mansion to open, for Karzai to walk out. Instead, he flew to Kabul.