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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 August, 2003, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
In the shadow of the Taleban

By Ian MacWilliam
BBC correspondent in Kandahar

Much attention is focused now on the reviving fortunes of the Taleban in southern Afghanistan. But the issue is causing few waves in the Taleban's old heartland, Kandahar.

Unemployed labourers
The face of Kandahar: Men wait for casual work in the city centre

The city of Kandahar saw many years of fighting during the Mujahideen war against Soviet occupation, as well as later, when factional fighting among the Mujahideen tore the city apart.

The city still bears battle scars and many Kandaharis do not seem unduly phased by the current political tensions.

Large swathes of the city were destroyed in the factional fighting of the 1990s but reconstruction is now under way.

Refugees have been returning from Pakistan and elsewhere, houses have been rebuilt and new shops and businesses are opening. The roads are jammed with bikes, motorbikes and cars.

Highway hopes

Mohammed Ismail, who spent 23 years in Pakistan as a refugee, came back to his native city two years ago and opened a carpet shop in the busy shopping area called Herati Gate.

"The carpet business is going well," he told me, "even though it has slowed down since the war in Iraq."

Afghan boy with marine
An Afghan boy plays at the feet of a US soldier

"Many of the foreigners who buy carpets have gone to Kabul or Pakistan because of security worries, but it is not dangerous for Afghans.

"Life is getting better here and, as it improves, more Afghans will come home and many of them are very rich and they'll bring their money with them."

One major project which will improve the local economy is the rebuilding of the main highway between Kandahar and Kabul - this is Washington's showcase reconstruction project and President George Bush has promised it will be finished by the end of the year.

The surface of the road still needs work, but the improvements already mean that a bone-shaking two day journey has been turned into a very dusty but manageable 12-hour drive.

The old bazaars in Kandahar are like a scene from the Middle Ages with men and young boys running tiny shops or working as jewellers or tinsmiths.

They are grouped around the city's most famous monument, the blue domed mausoleum of Ahmad Shah Durrani - the 17th century ruler who founded modern Afghanistan.

'Come back, Taleban'

Nearby is the mosque that houses the reputed cloak of Mohammed, one of the holiest relics in Afghanistan.

Taleban leader Mullah Omar displayed this cloak to the people of Kandahar in the early days of the Taleban movement to inspire them to support his purist Islamic fighters.

In the conservative villages of Kandahar province, there is still some popular support for the Taleban.

Taleban soldiers
Gone, but not forgotten: Taleban soldiers in their heyday

On the western outskirts of the city rises a dramatic sword-back mountain ridge. In the village below, known as Old Kandahar, Haji Mohammed sat under a brush-wood shelter beside his dusty wheat field to escape the heat of the midday sun.

"Yes, we would like the Taleban back," he said, "because they brought strict law and order - but we won't back them now unless they can win."

But a man from the neighbouring village - reclining in a roadside tea shop - takes another view.

"Nobody likes the Taleban," he told me, "but people are afraid of them, they only want to fight. We've had enough of fighting - everyone just wants peace and security."

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