MAZAR-I-SHARIF: Thousands of Afghans took to the streets of northern cities to welcome their new year in a joyous celebration of music, dancing and fireworks.
Less than 700 km to the south, residents of poverty-stricken villages, towns and cities riddled with mines and plagued by bombings know only war as they struggle for survival.
In Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of the northern province of Balkh, authorities estimate that half a million people gathered for Nowruz, a 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian festival marking the Persian new year.
The southern province of Helmand could not have been more different as 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan troops battled Taliban insurgents in the biggest offensive of a war now in its ninth year.
As a half-hour fireworks display burst over Mazar on the evening of March 13, a series of suicide bombings killed 35 people, mostly civilians, in Kandahar city, capital of the southern province of Kandahar, the site of almost daily violence.
"I’m just glad I’m from the north," said Hamidullah, a 32-year-old agriculture student at Balkh University.
"This side of the country is better than that side," he told AFP, likening north and south to chalk and cheese.
As he spoke, crowds were gathering for the traditional new year games — buzkashi, in which horsemen fight over a goat carcass, camel fighting and ram fighting.
In the south, dog fighting was once the most popular betting man’s sport, but Taliban attacks have claimed huge casualties among spectators.
Southern Afghanistan is home to the Pashtun tribes, the nation’s largest ethnic group and the country’s traditional rulers, as well as the source of Taliban leaders.
The north, separated from the south by the Hindu Kush mountains and accessible via the treacherously steep and narrow Salang Pass, is dominated by Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group, as well as the Uzbek, Turkmen and Hazara tribes.
President Hamid Karzai lacks standing among his fellow Pashtuns while Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek leaders, mostly warlords who won their following fighting the Soviets, are popular among their tribes.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from Kandahar from 1996 until their overthrow in the 2001 US-led invasion.
Remnants of the extremists retreated to the villages they had sprung from back in 1990 as a radical Islamic militia swept across the country to take power.
From those villages across the south — a rugged region stretching from the foothills of the north-eastern Hindu Kush to the south-western border with Iran — the Taliban have regrouped, rearmed and returned in the form of a deadly insurgency, waging war on the Western-backed Kabul government.
Most of their activity is focused in the south and south-east, where they have established "shadow" administrations, challenging the authority of the government, which in many places has no presence.
Karzai holds onto power with the backing of international forces under US and NATO command, set to peak at 150,000 by August under a US strategy to speed up the end of the war and then draw down troops.
The first test of the strategy was launched in the poppy-growing Marjah district of Helmand province in mid-February with US Marines leading 15,000 troops against the Taliban and drug cartels that have been in control there for years.
Initial operations are already under way in neighboring Kandahar, described by military planners as a vital objective in the war.
"I love Kandahar," said Attaullah, who runs a real estate agency in the city.
"But life here is very, very hard," he told AFP as he sat in his office waiting for customers.
"We live under extreme hardship. Every time there’s an explosion I think my young son might die, if not in the explosion then maybe just from the fear of the noise.
"I have lots of money but it doesn’t help. I might leave the country. This place is not for living," the 42-year-old said.
Landowner Mohammad Jaweed, 34, described similar troubles.
"I can’t even go to my farms in Maywand," he said, referring to a Kandahar district largely under Taliban control. "Sometimes I get nothing from the harvest."
The deadly reality of the south has persisted since 2001, yet in the north the Taliban struggled even when they were in power to gain a foothold in the face of local people’s hostility.
As a result, northerners enjoy security, run thriving businesses and prosper in all aspects of life.
"We have been lucky," said Mohammad Ibrahim Ghazanfar, a successful businessman from Mazar-i-Sharif who said his import-export company had expanded into banking, thanks to "good security here".
"Security plays the most important role in any country’s economy," he said.
"If you have good security your business improves, and here we have good security. It has been the key asset in improving our business" in post-Taliban Afghanistan.
It is not only business that prospers in the north.
Local governments have been able to complete hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of development projects including schools, clinics and government facilities, power plants and roads, Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful warlord and the governor of Balkh said in a recent speech.
Cultivation of poppy — the raw material for heroin — has also been cut to almost zero, he said, in stark contrast to the south, where Helmand produces most of the world’s opium, a $3 billion-a-year illicit industry.
Balkh alone had contributed about 10 billion afghanis ($200,000,000) to national coffers in taxes and revenues, Noor, who remains in power despite opposing Karzai during last year’s elections, told a new year ceremony.
Nevertheless, security is fragile as the Taliban-led insurgency has in recent years managed to spread its footprint across 80 percent of the country.
The Taliban now have a presence in the northern province of Kunduz, where small pockets of Pashtuns live among Tajiks and Uzkbeks, as well as Badghis and Faryab provinces, where US forces plan to reinforce NATO allies.
Their influence however remains weak compared to the south.
"I’m concerned," Ghazanfar, the trader and banker, said of the Taliban growth in Kunduz, which lies on a key transport route connecting Afghanistan to neighboring Central Asian states.
"We already have problems along the road from Sherkhan Bandar," he said, referring to the border crossing with Tajikistan.