RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Further south, the Taliban have unleashed a series of bombings in a place that will see the next big NATO offensive. The city of Kandahar is the heartland of the Taliban. Militants once driven out are back on the streets there and in the countryside surrounding the city.
In this setting, it's fair to say Alex Strick and Felix Kuehn are truly an oddity. The two Westerners have made Kandahar their home, mastering the language and translating the memoirs of a once prominent Taliban leader.
They joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio to offer a feel for the place.
What is Kandahar like, right now, with the Taliban there - freely? Are they running things? I mean are they obviously in control?
Mr. FELIX KUEHN (Co-Founder, AfghanWire.com): This is Felix here. No, they're not obvious in control. I mean there is a police force and there is some resembling of what might be called the government. But I dont think the Taliban's objective is to patrol the cities. It's about being able to operate with impunity to assassinate and have access to whoever they want to have access to.
Since early last summer, our friends have pointed out and said, oh, there are more and more Taliban coming to the city, and that has really picked up in the last few months - ever since we've heard that, now the big push is going to be to Kandahar. And the Taliban are also preparing for this.
And so that is kind of the state where people are in. There is a general feeling of fear.
MONTAGNE: The two of you have written that has become common in the city now to say goodbye to people with, I'll you soon if you're still alive?
Mr. STRICK: Yeah, absolutely. Sent about a year and a half ago.
MONTAGNE: And you, as I understand it, you don't even have a guard, a paid guard, which is quite a common thing in Afghanistan now, for those who can afford it.
Mr. STRICK: Obviously, as you say, the security situation in Kandahar is very bad. They are sporadic IED attacks, assassinations, kidnappings, there are all kinds of threats. But the way we continue to stay there is essentially by having lots of friends and by having people who vouch for us, and guarantee us, and know us, and this kind of thing. If someone wanted to make trouble for us, kill us, kidnap us, it will be extremely easy. But, you know, we've been living down there for two years now, which is an indication, I guess, that we're doing something right.
MONTAGNE: You say you're protected by your friends, people you know. Who are they and how are you protected by the Taliban?
Mr. KUEHN: Felix here. I think the Taliban don't care about us in that way. Our friends are tribal leaders or small commanders who live in Kandahar City or outside of the city. And people know, who our friends are, where we are guests, and that means a lot within society, because we're not just two individuals all of the sudden. We are part of a group. So, if you would, just kidnap us in the middle of the street, you probably would run into a problem with a whole range of different people who inquire what happened and who did it. And in Kandahar City nothing is a secret. It's very much like a village and everybody knows what's happening.
MONTAGNE: And is that part, in the sense of something we've heard about, Pashtunwali, the tribal code of - you are a guest and you're treated honorably?
Mr. STRICK: Yeah, absolutely. These kind of cultures maybe have been eroded a bit, but this relationship and this kind of guarantee, you know, we wouldn't go down there if we didn't feel that we could rely on it.
MONTAGNE: So much of the talk about Kandahar is what we just talked about, how rough it is. But there is a daily sort of life and certain pleasures in Kandahar.
Mr. STRICK: Yeah, I mean, there are all sorts of things that you can do. I mean, I wouldn't oversell it, necessary. It's a difficult environment. And if we were to go shopping in a bazaar one day and then we do it the next day, yeah, maybe that will be fine. If you do it on the third day maybe you get kidnapped.
Mr. KUEHN: I mean, we have a whole range of security rules that we adhere to. We don't inform anyone about our movements prior to it. We call people we interview while we're in the car on the way already. We might switch cars when we go somewhere. We don't have any movements which have any regularity and we have probably one of the biggest security rules: don't deal with people you don't know anything about.
MONTAGNE: So, if you ever get out under a tree, 'cause Kandahar, the region, is beautiful.
Mr. STRICK: Yeah, once every month we'll try to get out of the city, if only to get a perspective on different things that are going on. Those trips outside are, in very many ways, the more interesting things that we do. It's very difficult to live down in Kandahar during the summer without the possibility of going swimming in the evenings, let's say. That's something certainly that makes our lives easier.
MONTAGNE: Thank both of you for joining us.
Mr. STRICK: Thank you very much, Renee.
Mr. KUEHN: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick. Their translation of the memoir, "My Life with the Taliban," by Abdul Salam Zaeef is just out. An excerpt is at NPR.org.
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