KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – What a difference two decades make.

When I last visited this southern Afghan city – the cradle of the Taliban insurgency - I flew in on a plane chartered by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The airstrip was tiny, as was the airport. The city was a backwater, with no more than a few hundred thousand people, if that. It was the summer of 1996, and brutally hot.

And oh yes, the Taliban controlled the city – and much of Afghanistan.

When I landed again in Kandahar earlier this month, I flew in on a commercial airline that touched down on a large airstrip rivaling any in the West. The airport, with its curved arches and manicured gardens, had become an international one. As they walked out of the airport, visitors were greeted by ostriches in an enclosure – yes, you read that correctly – that had been donated by a wealthy businessman. The city had greatly expanded, its population up nearly ten-fold.

And the Taliban, of course, was no longer in control.

Entire neighborhoods had risen up. Buildings had multiplied. Ten-foot walls encircled palatial homes. Guesthouses had armed guards at the gates. Around the city were militarized compounds surrounded by blast walls. Police and soldiers drove in tan Humvees – gifts from the U.S. forces whose presence has dramatically thinned, but who still have a base near the airport.

In the old part of the city, memories of my last visit flooded back.

It was easy back then for a foreign journalist – I was on an assignment for Newsweek -- to interview the Taliban. Like most Afghans, they were hospitable people – far different from the anti-Western, journalist-kidnapping entity they would become in later years. A few weeks after my visit, the Taliban would capture the capital, Kabul.

One morning, I interviewed a senior Taliban mullah. He asked me where I was from. I told him I was American. He asked me again where I was from -- meaning, of course, where my parents were from. I told him India, somewhat reluctantly. I was concerned because of the Taliban’s ties to India’s arch enemy, Pakistan. But the mullah was more interested in religion.

“You are Hindu,” the mullah asked.

“Yes,” I replied, a bit uncomfortably.

The armed Taliban fighters in the compound listened intently.

The mullah continued, speaking about the virtues of Islam and its greatness. Then, he asked me if I would be willing to convert. The Taliban fighters edged closer, waiting for my answer. I smiled weakly, unsure how to respond. Finally, I blurted out: I have to ask my father first because he would feel disrespected if I didn’t consult him.

I glanced nervously at the fighters and waited for the mullah’s response. He smiled and nodded. Yes, he said, you can’t disrespect your father. And we continued with our interview.

I returned to Afghanistan after the Sept 11th terror attacks but never came back to Kandahar. That was also the case in 2004, when I covered the presidential elections. So this time, my driver filled me in on what the city was like since the last time I visited. There were years when the city was so volatile that streets and neighborhoods were no-go zones. When American forces patrolled the city, attacks were frequent. But the lucrative American contracts also help boost the economy.

Today, the security situation has dramatically improved – largely because of the diminished U.S. presence and the city’s infamous police chief, Lt. Gen Abdul Razziq. He is widely credited with bringing security but has allegedly done so through abusive tactics including killings, executions and beatings, according to human rights activists. Razziq has denied the allegations.

There are concerns about the future, as in much of Afghanistan. The city suffers from chronic electricity problems; as the Americans wind down their mission, many Kandaharis fear the Taliban or another militant group could emerge again, shattering their way of life.

On the surface, though, such worries seem invisible. I was able to freely walk around Kandahar, just like I did in 1996, interviewing people on the streets, in the markets, in shops. At night, I ate dinner in any restaurant I chose (I can’t do that as freely in Kabul these days). Women, though, were still dressed in head-to-toe burqas or in black garments that covered their face, save their eyes. Kandahar remains one of the country’s most conservative zones.

Perhaps the biggest, and most surprising, change to the landscape is the heavily secured enclave of Aino Minna. Built by relatives of former President Hamid Karzai, the area is a planned residential development filled with multi-million dollar mansions, apartment buildings and shopping malls built largely from American contracts and rampant corruption.

At one intersection, water bubbled up from a large fountain graced with mosaic tiles, rivaling any in Europe. Streets were lined with lush trees and flower beds filled with red and yellow roses.

A friend described the enclave as “airdropped from Dubai” – referring to the opulent neighborhoods of the Persian Gulf metropolis.

In Aino Minna, the future of Kandahar seemed irreversible.

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