KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – By switching from studying business management to training as a nurse, 19-year-old Anita Taraky has placed a bet on the future of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar — that once foreign troops are gone, private-sector jobs will be fewer but nursing will always be in demand.
Besides, if the Taliban militants recapture the southern Afghan city that was their movement's birthplace and from which they were expelled by U.S.-led forces 11 years ago, nursing will likely be one of the few professions left open to women.
Taraky is one of thousands of Kandaharis who are weighing their options with the approaching departure of the U.S. and its coalition partners. But while she has opted to stay, businessman Esmatullah Khan is leaving.
Khan, 29, made his living in property dealing and supplying services to the Western contingents operating in the city. Property prices are down, and business with foreigners is already shrinking, so he is pulling out, as are many others, he said.
Many are driven by a certainty that the Taliban will return, and that there will be reprisals.
"From our baker to our electrician to our plumber, everyone was engaged with the foreign troops and so they are all targets for the Taliban. And unless the government is much stronger, when the foreign troops leave, that is the end," Khan said.
The stakes are high. Kandahar, Afghanistan's second city, is the southern counterweight to Kabul, the capital. Keeping Kandahar under central government control is critical to preventing the country from breaking apart into warring fiefdoms as it did in the 1990s.
"Kandahar is the gate of Afghanistan," said Asan Noorzai, director of the provincial council. "If Kandahar is secure, the whole country is secure. If it is insecure, the whole country will soon be fighting."
Even though Kandahar city has traffic jams and street hawkers to give it an atmosphere of normality, there are dozens of shuttered stores on the main commercial street, it's almost too easy to find a parking space these days, and shopkeepers are feeling the pinch.
Dost Mohammad Nikzad said his profits from selling sweets have dropped by a half or more in the past year, to about $30 a day, and he has had to cut back on luxuries.
He said that every month he would buy a new shalwar kameez, the tunic favored by Afghan men; now he buys one every other month.
"I only go out to eat at a restaurant once a week. Before I would have gone multiple times a week," Nikzad said, as he stood behind his counter, waiting for customers to show.
The measurements of violence levels contradict each other. On the one hand, many Kandaharis say things are better this year. On the other hand, the types of violence have changed and, to some minds, gotten worse.
"Before, we were mostly worried about bomb blasts. Now ... we are afraid of worse things like assassinations and suicide attacks," said Gul Mohammad Stanakzai, 34, a bank cashier.
Prying open the Taliban grip on Kandahar and its surrounding province has cost the lives of more than 400 international troops since 2001, and many more Afghans, including hundreds of public officials who have been assassinated by the Taliban.
Kandahar province remains the most violent in the country, averaging more than five "security incidents" a day, according to independent monitors. In Kandahar city, suicide attacks have more than doubled so far this year compared with the same period of 2011, according to U.N. figures.
"They are not fighting in the open the way they were before. Instead they are planting bombs and trying to get at us through the police and the army," said Qadim Patyal, the deputy provincial governor.
The Taliban have said in official statements that they are focusing more on infiltrating Afghan and international forces to attack them. In the Kandahar governor's office, armed Afghan soldiers are barred from meetings with American officials lest they turn on them, Patyal said.
And many point out that the "better security" is only relative. By all measures — attacks, bombings and civilian casualties — Kandahar is a much more violent city now than in 2008, before U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a troop surge.
There are no statistics on how many people have left the city of 500,000, but people are fleeing the south more than any other part of the country, according to U.N. figures. About 32 percent of the approximately 397,000 people who were recorded as in-country refugees were fleeing violence in the south, according to U.N. figures from the end of May.
The provincial government, which is supposed to fill the void left by the departing international forces, has suffered heavily from assassinations. It suffered a double blow in July last year with the killing of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of President Hamid Karzai who was seen as the man who made things work in Kandahar, and Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of the city.
Now, Noorzai says, he can neither get the attention of ministers in Kabul nor trust city officials to do their jobs.
He remembers 2001, when he and others traveled to the capital flying the Afghan flag which had just been reinstated in place of that of the ousted Taliban. "People were throwing flowers and money on our car, they were so happy to have the Afghan flag flying again," he said.
"When we got power, what did we give them in return? Poverty, corruption, abuse."
Mohammad Omer, Kandahar's current mayor, insists that if people are leaving the city, it is to return to villages they fled in previous years because now security has improved.
Zulmai Hafez disagrees. He has felt like a marked man since his father went to work for the government three years ago, and is too frightened to return to his home in the Panjwai district outside Kandahar city. He refused to have his picture taken or to have a reporter to his home, instead meeting at the city's media center.
"It's the Taliban who control the land, not the government," Hafez said. He notes that the government administrator for his district sold off half his land, saying he would not be able to protect the entire farm from insurgents. Many believe the previous mayor was murdered because he went after powerful land barons.
Land reform is badly needed, and the mayor is angry about people who steal land, but he offers no solution. Kandahar only gets electricity about half the day. The mayor says it's up to the Western allies to fix that. But the foreign aid is sharply down. Aid coming to Kandahar province through the U.S. Agency for International Development, the largest donor, has fallen to $63 million this year from $161 million in 2011, according to U.S. Embassy figures.
The mayor prefers to talk about investing in parks and planting trees. "I can't resolve the electricity problem, but at least I can provide a place in the city for people to relax," he said.
The only people thinking long-term appear to be the Taliban.
"The Americans are going and the Taliban need the people's support, so they are trying to avoid attacks that result in civilian casualties," said Noor Agha Mujahid, a member of the Taliban shadow government for Kandahar province, where he oversees operations in a rural district. "After 2014 ... it will not take a month to take every place back."
One of the biggest worries is the fate of women who have made strides in business and politics since the ouster of the Taliban.
"What will these women do?" asked Ehsanullah Ehsan, director of a center that trains more than 800 women a year in computers, English and business. It was at his center where Anita Taraky studied before switching to nursing.
"Even if the Taliban don't come back, even if the international community just leaves, there will be fewer opportunities for women," he said.
On the outskirts of the city stands one of the grandest projects of post-Taliban Kandahar — the gated community of Ayno Maina with tree-lined cement homes, wi-fi and rooftop satellite dishes.
Khan, the departing businessman, says he bought bought 10 lots for $66,000 in Ayno Maina and has yet to sell any of them despite slashing the price,
He recalled that when he first went to the project office it was packed with buyers. "Now it is full of empty houses. No one goes there," Khan said.
Only about 15,000 of the 40,000 lots have been sold, and 2,400 homes built and occupied, according to Mahmood Karzai, one of the development's main backers and a brother of President Karzai. He argues, however, that prices are down all over Afghanistan, and that Ayno Maina is still viable, provided his brother gets serious about reform that will attract investors.
"Afghanistan became a game," he said over lunch at the Ayno Maina office. "The game is to make money and get the hell out of here. That goes for politicians. That goes for contractors."
He shrugged off allegations that he skimmed money from Ayno Maina, saying the claims were started by competitors in Kabul who assume everyone who is building something in Afghanistan is also stealing money.
He said the money went where it was needed: to Western-style building standards and security.
In downtown Kandahar, a deserted park and Ferris wheel serve as another reminder of thwarted hopes. Built in the mid-2000s, the wheel has been idle for two years according to a guard, Abdullah Jan Samad. It isn't broken, he said, it just needs electricity. A major U.S.-funded project to get reliable electricity to the city has floundered and generators that were supposed to provide a temporary solution only operate part-time because of fuel shortages.
"The government should be paying for maintenance for the Ferris wheel," the guard said. "When you build something you should also make sure to maintain it."
Associated Press Writer Mirwais Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar.