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 plied muddy ruts that passed as roads. The only motorized transport belonged to Western NGOs. Commerce consisted of a few sad huts—primitive convenience stores—and an outdoor bazaar where 90 percent of economic activity came from sales of opium paste.
In 2001 I wrote that good roads would change everything. They have.
It's impressive. Based on my 2001 experience, 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, we made it in half an afternoon. Towers for high-tension conduits line the road, promising an electrified future.
The ghosts of 2001 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 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 and white-gloved traffic cops direct the mayhem. Business is booming. America is finished, but Taloqan is looking good.
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. But the Taliban never left. Neither did the repression. In Taloqan every woman but one wore the burqa, turning her head away 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.
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.
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.
And the one thing Afghans wanted most in 2001—security—remains elusive.