Kandahar matters, and what happens there generally decides not just the fate of Afghanistan but also impacts Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent.
Kandahar - the land which gave birth to Afghan kings, modern Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Afghanistan's first democratic leader, President Hamid Karzai.
The second largest city in Afghanistan has changed dramatically since the American-led intervention in 2001. It's been nearly 20 years since Hamid Karzai entered Kandahar and turned the tide of the war to dislodge the Taliban from power.
Now as we come full circle with the Taliban entering negotiations with the Afghan government after having already secured a deal with the Americans, there is one Kandahari who is eying more than just peace.
Sayed Jalal Agha is often called Mr Kandahar because of his love for his native city and the almost 6,000 people he has provided livelihoods too. Aged just 37, he has regularly rubbed shoulders with Prince Charles, been appointed a special adviser and envoy to Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and the High Council for National Reconciliation (HCNR). He has also offered vast sums of money to Afghan cricket ad encouraged them to become world beaters and now wants to use his base in Kandahar to change Afghanistan’s fortunes.
Jalal is often seen holding large jirgas (tribal council) discussing social issues, economic challenges and what matters to the people in Kandahar. He is also often in Kabul with Dr Abdullah, Hamid Karzai, and prominent ministers telling them not to forget that the real people that matter away from Doha and the relative high life of Kabul are those millions suffering due Afghanistan's intractable conflict.
However, unlike most other Afghan leaders, Jalal does not blame outsiders but says instead Afghans must seize their own destiny and make the most of it even if the US turns its back on Afghanistan. He has made this point publicly on Afghan television interviews.
Often the Afghan debate is about the Taliban, Ashraf Ghani and the regional tussle between Pakistan, India, and Iran. However, the local man from the village and city is forgotten beyond the tales of pity, destruction, and chaos. Whilst the war may be brutal and sympathy for its belligerents runs low, what is missing in the Afghan debate is the middle Afghan – those that could represent a bright future and are not often shown in the media. There are some success stories who want to turn Afghanistan out of the mire.
Commercial beginnings and respect for Karzai
During the early days of the war in 2002, Jalal like many other Kandaharis and Afghans were enthralled that one of them, Hamid Karzai, was taking Afghanistan into a bright future. Despite what many people say about President Karzai, he has reached a mythical status post-presidency amongst Pashtuns in the south of Afghanistan and beyond.
Often maligned during his years in power, Karzai arguably now wields more influence than he did when in the Presidential Palace. He is in all the meetings of the intra-Afghan dialogues, often side by side with President Ghani as well as Dr Abdullah. He still gets regular invites to meet heads of states and has a key ring side position to be kingmaker again.
Jalal has been a trusted friend and confidante of Karzai, often by his side whether in London or Kabul.
"Jalal is a trusted friend of mine and he is already a successful national and international businessman. He can be a good leader for the future of Afghanistan. Jalal has helped the poor people of Kandahar including giving salaries of teachers and funds for school," says Karzai.
Indeed, Jalal’s focus remains trade, he says that Kandahar was the gateway to the invasion of India, and it was commerce that drove Afghans into India. He of course is referring to the founding father of Afghanistan, Ahmad Shah Durrani.
“We cannot move forward unless we can learn to feed ourselves, foreign aid is not the solution, we must create jobs here,” says Jalal.
Moving around in Kandahar with Jalal in his convoy is almost like following a president, he goes from his house to the market and jirgas in and around the province. He also has two Afghan Generals side by side as he greets and meets tribal elders and local Kandaharis.
Brigadier General Sultan Mohammed, a retired sector commander who had three key districts under him in Kandahar, now works on Jalal’s security detail and travels with him to Kabul to meet Dr Abdullah and discuss ongoing negotiations in Doha. Lt-General Ismatullah Alizai has known Jalal for over a decade and now in a key position in Kabul believes it is important to listen to Jalal’s message; that young leaders are needed, those that can create jobs and listen to the people on the street. That is more important than being seen in Western capitals or regional countries whilst the people suffer. Jalal also believes it is important to be a bridge between the local Taliban and the leaders in Kabul. Not everyone is ideologically driven, sometimes it is more about just money and who is paying the bill. He moves around the province with all sorts of influencers from the Karzai clan to the Barakzais and the religious ulema who have a spiritual hold over many of the mosques and madrassas.
During the peak of the war, Jalal used to run a logistics business which helped NATO move its fuel supplies from the south of the country to the north. This was tricky business given local sentiment against foreign troops. However, he negotiated between local tribal chiefs and businessmen and turned a negative into a positive, by hiring more than 6000 locals to work for him and provide sustenance for hundreds of families. This has endeared him to locals and that is why thousands turn out to greet him when he holds a social gathering or business meeting.
In fact, more people turn out to meet him than the Governor and Police Chief of the province. It was his local negotiation skills that made him a go-between at a young age dealing with the US military, Afghan officials, Taliban commanders and ordinary Afghans. It was the latter he cared most about and wanted to hire them to coopt them into making Afghanistan flourish.
Way forward for Afghanistan
Jalal in his current capacity as adviser to Dr Abdullah and the peace team meets US Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad regularly, and he thinks the focus is too top heavy. He is full of respect for Dr Abdullah Abdullah and others striving to bring peace, he is open when he tells Khalilzad that the locals – whether form Kandahar or Panjshir or Heart – should not be forgotten.It is the local Afghan that suffers he says. He thinks elite politics has ruined Afghanistan and economic independence is not a pipe dream.
After all Kandahar has world famous pomegranates, grapes and saffron, so at the very least Afghanistan should be an agriculture hub. Dr Abdullah Abdullah trusts Jalal to connect the locals to the elite in Kabul and has Jalal often by his side in key local gatherings. He divides his time between Kandahar, London, Kabul, and Dubai. His international connections should also come in handy should he mount a real challenge soon. He knows a raised political profile will bring new challenges and enemies who previously saw him as a rich businessmen, benefactor and patron of several high-profile politicians and causes.
Once he is in the limelight as a contender many erstwhile friends could well become foes. He knows however the history of Afghanistan, it ruled India for hundreds of years, existed well before Pakistan. The great Ahmad Shah Durrani, the founder of the Kingdom of Afghanistan defeated the Persians in battle, in his view Afghanistan is not a small war torn-country – it must regain its past.
For now, Jalal is content to put Kandahar back on the map before he sets his eyes on Kabul, and that time may not be too far.
‘’We must stop blaming others for our problems and begging, we must fix our economy, and connect Kandahar to Kabul and then make Afghanistan great again,” he says.
A previous version of this story misquoted Mr Hamid Karzai, the quote has been corrected.