KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — 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.Continued...