An Afghan woman walks among U.S. soldiers in Kandahar City.
In an operation called Dragon Strike launched more than two months ago, the U.S. military has been hunting the Taliban in the fields and vineyards outside Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban.
The operation, now winding down, has included artillery barrages, strafing runs and helicopter assaults in the dead of night.
"The last couple of months after we started our clearance ops, it's completely emptied out. And we haven't seen any activity," says Capt. Brant Auge, a company commander with the 101st Airborne Division operating just west of the city of Kandahar.
But there have been unintended consequences. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of refugees are fleeing into the city. Taliban fighters are streaming there, too, and now are stepping up a terrorism campaign.
Displaced Seeking Work
A group of men standing in central Kandahar are among the displaced from Arghandab and Zhari districts outside the city. They refuse to share their names, but they tell stories of the war ruining their farmland and prompting them to flee.
An Afghan boy stands aside a motorbike used by a suicide bomber in Kandahar City on Oct. 23. Two civilians were killed and two others were wounded in the attack.
One man says the Taliban filled the orchards and roads with land mines and booby traps. When an American convoy would hit one of the massive bombs, U.S. helicopters and jets would rocket the area. Explosions destroyed his vineyard and his water pump, he says. After he lost a son and nephew, the man packed up his family for the city.
Now, he says he takes work as a laborer when he can get it and is paid about $4 a day.
Others tell similar stories. They seem to fear the Americans and the Taliban equally. Reconstruction aid is going only to the cronies of the government, they say.
But these poor men looking for day work are not the only newcomers on Kandahar's streets.
Taliban fighters are here, too.
Support For Insurgents
The Taliban has found plenty of support in Kandahar, which allows its operatives to slip in amid the civilian population. Young men have been encouraged to wage jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan by preachers in the mosques and via popular cell phone videos.
The sound of motorcycles has become more frightening with a wave of assassins on motorbikes. Abdulrizak Palwal, a Kandahari writer, says no one feels safe. "The writers do not express themselves quite openly because they are afraid. Even the religious people, they are shot in the mosques — inside — if they say anything against the Taliban," he says.
U.S. military officials says the Taliban is reacting to the pressure from American forces on the outskirts of the city by calling in reinforcements from other districts and from across the border in neighboring Pakistan.
Afghan men are detained for questioning by U.S. soldiers in Kandahar province. The men are suspected of being involved in a suicide bombing and ambush outside an American combat outpost.
"Some of them have gone into Kandahar City," says Maj. Basel Mixon, an intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne Division. "I also believe, though, that's part of a larger campaign plan for the Taliban."
Now that the military operation outside the city is nearing an end, the U.S. military plans to spend the winter building up local governments and providing jobs and services to the people as a way to blunt the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Kandahar has a deadly challenge before him.
Ghulam Haidar Hamidi, Kandahar's mayor for nearly four years, says government workers are being targeted. Those who die are usually low-level clerks, people who have no bodyguards or even their own cars to drive.
Hamidi has survived multiple attempts on his own life, and last April gunmen murdered his deputy while the man knelt to pray in a mosque.
Hamidi says security has improved. He says that the Taliban is less able to stage big car bombings inside Kandahar, and recently he has driven roads outside the city that had been no-go areas for years.
But still, for the 119 positions on his staff, he can find only 45 people brave enough to take jobs.
"My key employees quit the job," he says. "They are sitting at home because of the security."
Quil Lawrence reported from the city of Kandahar; Tom Bowman, embedded with U.S. troops, reported from areas just west of the city