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Nine Years Later, Afghan City is Buzzing But Still Menacing

TALOQAN, AFGHANISTAN -- Nine years ago, when I was using this provincial Afghan capital as a base to cover the battle of Kunduz, Taloqan was a dangerous place with medieval charm. Donkey carts and horse-drawn carriages, their steeds decked out with red pom-poms, plied muddy ruts that passed as roads. The only motorized transport belonged to Western NGOs. Commerce consisted of a few sad huts you'd recognize as primitive convenience stores and an outdoor bazaar where 90 percent of economic activity was attributable to sales of opium paste.

In 2001 I wrote that good roads would change everything. And they have. Some time after 2005, when The New York Times reported that the U.S. hadn't laid an inch of pavement in the entire country, road building happened--at least here in Takhar and in neighboring Kunduz province.

It's impressive. Based on my 2001 experience and the absence of media reports that anything had changed, I had budgeted three to four days to travel from the Tajik border to Taloqan. Cruising down smooth two-lane highways at 80-plus mph--Afghan drivers apparently had a long-repressed need for speed--we made it in half an afternoon. Towers for high-tension conduits (the wires haven't been strung yet) line the road, promising an electrified future.

The ghosts of '01 are here--burned-out armored personnel carriers, lumps of earth where villages stood, tank treads used as speed bumps--but hard to find. Khanabad, the blood-soaked eastern front line during the battle of Kunduz, where my fellow journalist had the skin torn off his body by Taliban POWs using their bare hands, is a farm community marked by the kind of green-and-white reflectorized sign you'd see in the Midwest.

Most of Taloqan is paved. The donkeys and horses are gone. The soccer field used by the Taliban for stonings and by a Northern Alliance warlord as a helicopter landing pad is filled with kids playing on green grass. There are traffic jams (of cars and Indian-style motorized rickshaws) and white-gloved traffic cops to direct the mayhem. Business is booming. America is finished, but Taloqan is looking good.

Asphalt made a difference. But the basics--the social and political situation that in December 2001 prompted me to declare the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan doomed--remain the same.

Time magazine recently declared that the Taliban would sweep back into power after a U.S. withdrawal, brutalizing them and stuffing them back under burqas. But the Taliban never left. Neither did the repression. In Taloqan every woman but one wore the burqa, turning her head away so we couldn't see her eyes through the netting as we passed.

Where are the Taliban? "They are all around us," said my driver's cousin, the campaign manager for a Canadian-Afghan actor running for parliament next month. "During the day, it is OK. They come at night."

Indeed they do. The week before our arrival they stormed a small NATO garrison staffed by German troops at the airport here, killing seven. Cellphone signals go dead at night in deference to Taliban strictures.

In 2001 I stayed with a pharmacist in the center of town, across the street from the Red Crescent. Now Afghans are strictly prohibited from receiving foreigners as overnight guests. Only one hotel, the gaudy Ariana Hotel and Wedding Banquet Hall, can accommodate non-Afghans. "The situation in Taloqan is not good," continued the campaign manager. "At night."

We have the Ariana entirely to ourselves. Compared to the Spartan conditions we endured nine years ago--bed lice, outhouse guarded by a mean rooster--it's a palace. Air conditioning, real beds, no parasitic bites as far as I can tell. There's a generator to supplement the four hours a day of electricity supplied to the city.

But it's a gilded cage, one surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire and guarded by a caffeinated man brandishing an AK-47. We can't go out at night, and neither do most Afghans. There's more prosperity. But it's even less safe.

Money is exchanging hands. But the one thing Afghans wanted most in 2001--security--remains elusive. Though it is not a historical novelty, it is ironic that people are turning to those who create the threat in order to resolve it.

Ted Rall is in Afghanistan to cover the war and research a book.

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