MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Kandahar, Afghanistan, there appears to be an alarming trend of political assassinations. Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban. Just yesterday, suspected Taliban militants tried unsuccessfully to assassinate the brother of President Hamid Karzai. He's the head of the area's provincial council. Last month, a top female politician was gunned down as she chatted with a neighbor outside her home.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to Kandahar and found that political assassinations are sowing fear in the community.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Derwayza Achakzai takes a visitor to the spot where his wife, Sitara, was gunned down last month only a few steps from their front door. The chemistry professor says he was upstairs when he heard the shots. He ran outside and found her sprawled on the sidewalk, dead.
Professor DERWAYZA ACHAKZAI: (German spoken)
NELSON: Speaking German to a Western visitor, Achakzai says her feet were right here when - he stops, unable to utter the rest.
Prof. ACHAKZAI: (German spoken)
NELSON: With shaking fingers, he claws at bullet holes in a nearby wall. He says the two rounds that missed his wife struck here. The casings weren't found. The killers of Sitara Achakzai are just as elusive. The Taliban claimed responsibility for murdering the outspoken women's rights activist, who was a deputy chairwoman of Kandahar's provincial council. But in a city where residents say it's difficult to tell friend from foe, her husband believes her killers could belong to any number of groups.
Prof. ACHAKZAI: (Through Translator) There's chaos here. You have to be afraid of everyone. I always run away when I see someone wearing thick clothes. I figure the chances are high he's a suicide bomber.
NELSON: Many here say it's not paranoia. Dozens of politicians, government employees, activists, even Muslim clerics are being targeted or killed. In Achakzai's case, police arrested two store owners alleged to have tipped off the gunmen that she was outside. But no one has been charged, as is usually the case in such killings.
Governor Tooryalai Wesa says that he's short thousands of police officers, making it difficult to prevent assassinations. He blames them on militant groups like the Taliban.
Governor TOORYALAI WESA (Kandahar, Afghanistan): They are not in the position to come to face-to-face fighting. This is, I think, the easy way for them, and this is the effective way for them - that's to ride a motorbike and then walk on the street or ride on the street, and see who is alone or who is the right target. They can do that.
NELSON: Wesa says what he is able to do is assign bodyguards to provincial officials and move some into safe houses, like the entire council of Ulama, or Muslim scholars. They and other clerics who preach against militants are being picked off one by one.
Mr. QARI SAYED AHMAD (Cleric): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: This cleric, Qari Sayed Ahmad, who delivered this sermon at his mosque in Kandahar last year, was shot dead in April as he returned home. He was the fourth mullah to be gunned down in Kandahar in recent months. The targeted killings led Sayed Mohammad Hanefi and dozens of other pro-government clerics to hastily move into the Afghan National Army compound here.
Mr. SAYED MOHAMMAD HANEFI (Cleric): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Hanefi says he does much of his preaching these days from a makeshift radio station in the compound. If he does leave the compound, it's with no fewer than 10 police officers. But even heavily guarded compounds are at risk.
Three suicide bombers tried to storm the governor's compound a few days after the NPR interview. They were unsuccessful, but ended up killing seven people outside the gates. Two assaults on the nearby provincial council compound in the past six months proved more deadly.
In the latest attack, seven bombers dressed in stolen army uniforms stormed the provincial council chambers. Only the walls and window frames are still standing in the compound's massive hall, where one bomber attacked. One of his boots, and bits of his bloodstained camouflage uniform, lay among the rubble. The force of the explosion blew out all the light fixtures as well. They dangle in the breeze. Other bombers began firing at whoever they found in the compound's second building.
Mohammad Ehsan, another deputy chairman of the provincial council, grabbed a gun from one of the bodyguards and fired back.
Mr. MOHAMMAD EHSAN (Deputy Chairman, Kandahar Provincial Council): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says the fighting lasted 20 minutes. When it was over, all the attackers were dead, along with 12 others at the compound. Ehsan says he was lucky. He survived with nothing more than a sore neck. He says that the attacks haven't scared him away from his work, nor do the frequent threats he gets on his cell phone from men who claim to be with the Taliban.
For now, provincial council members meet in the well-guarded home of council chair Ahmad Wali Karzai, hidden behind Hescos and other barriers. Karzai is the brother of the Afghan president. He was himself the target of an assassination attempt outside Kabul this week when gunmen ambushed his convoy. One of his bodyguards was killed, but Ahmad Wali Karzai was unhurt.
Mr. AHMAD WALI KARZAI (Chairman, Provincial Council): This is a war for justice and for freedom and for democracy, and we are not going to just run away from it. So, it's tough, but we will continue our struggle against the terrorists and al-Qaida.
NELSON: But other would-be targets say the assassinations have brought to a halt a lot of government and social work in Kandahar.
Shahida Hussein is a women's rights activist here.
Ms. SHAHIDA HUSSEIN (Women's Rights Activist): (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She says she rarely leaves her home now. She says everyone is afraid, especially given that neither Canadian troops, tasked with helping secure the city, nor the Afghan police seem to be willing or able to bring assassins to justice. The Canadian-led task force did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
Alex Dierycks(ph), a Dutch researcher and Taliban expert who lives in Kandahar, says the lack of prosecution emboldens militants.
Mr. ALEX DIERYCKS (Dutch Researcher and Taliban Expert): And it's difficult to know what the Canadians can do because this is all a very local and domestic side of what the Taliban are doing. And the only way that you can start to tackle this is through very, very intense police work and intelligence work, which only really the Afghan government can do, because they're the only ones who have the language skills, essentially.
NELSON: He and others say that the assassinations have pretty much stopped anyone from speaking out against the Taliban in Kandahar these days.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kandahar.