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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Thousands of American troops are heading to southern Afghanistan, specifically to Kandahar, to bring stability to the country's second- largest city and the birthplace of the Taliban. How well that mission goes could determine when and how many U.S. troops begin coming home.

SIEGEL: Over the next few weeks, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman will be reporting from Kandahar. He'll be following several different military units, trying to understand what needs to be done if the U.S. effort there and across the country is to succeed.

In the first of his reports, Tom Bowman tours Kandahar with one of the top American generals there to gauge the fight ahead.

TOM BOWMAN: Brigadier General Ben Hodges hops out of his armored vehicle. He's in downtown Kandahar, a honeycomb of low concrete buildings that stretch to the hazy horizon. It's sprawling, just like Los Angeles without the skyscrapers.

SIEGEL: Taliban assassinations and intimidation and a lot of common crime. It's a lawless atmosphere of power brokers and their gunmen vying for dominance.

BEN HODGES: Kandahar really is Dodge City. There's not as much open shooting as you would see in Dodge City.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOWMAN: Hodges is a deputy American commander here. He's got a mischievous grin and that drawl is from his native Tallahassee.

HODGES: I think it probably was what Denver must have been like in the mid-1800s, in terms of people trying to grab what they could.

BOWMAN: It's that frontier atmosphere that the Americans and their allies are trying to tame. Think of the fight taking place in three different places: in Kandahar city itself, where hundreds more U.S. and Afghan police will patrol and set up new police stations; on the outskirts of the city, where a dozen security checkpoints are being built in an effort to catch Taliban fighters and bomb makers; finally, in the rural areas around Kandahar, where thousands of American and Afghan soldiers will sweep through the suspected nests of Taliban fighters.

On this day, General Hodges is surveying that entire battlefield, and each stop on his tour highlights the challenge ahead for the Americans.

Here in Kandahar city, Hodges is looking for a place to house Afghan government workers. Without them, there's no functioning government.

HODGES: If you want to get, you know, skilled employees, you've to give them a, you know, a decent place to live that's relatively secure.

BOWMAN: Which is why Hodges meets with NATO troops here who aren't chasing Taliban, but are rebuilding a compound of abandoned concrete houses. Hodges goes inside.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPPING ON BROKEN GLASS)

BOWMAN: It's littered with broken glass and dangling electrical cord. A Canadian army engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Jenny Carignan, tells Hodges about fixing up the compound.

JENNY CARIGNAN: Should be starting sometime in July but we're looking at aesthetics work, so, resurfacing, painting, windows and electrical, obviously, and plumbing.

BOWMAN: Hodges jokes with an Afghan police commander about how much space the man would need for his family.

HODGES: Yeah, but you've got, like, 20 children. I don't think - you would need two compounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BOWMAN: For all the laughter, the police are part of the problem here. There's petty corruption and incompetence and little leadership. So, across town there's more construction going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

BOWMAN: The Americans building a new barracks to house the Afghan National Police.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

HODGES: Hey, what's up, man? How are you doing?

Unidentified Man: Pretty good. How are you doing?

BOWMAN: The national police are coming in to help with the Kandahar operation. They're seen as somewhat more professional than the locals - though only a temporary solution.

Hodges is joined on the tour by Kandahar's police chief. His name is Sardar Mohammad Zazai, and he's seen as ineffective and unwilling to address corruption.

SARDAR MOHAMMAD ZAZAI: (Through translator) I don't deny that there used to be a lot of corruption, but since I started here work, it's reduced the level of corruption, and we are still working on that process.

BOWMAN: There's a long way to go.

General Hodges' convoy moves on through the city like a long line of elephants. There's a sense of normalcy, despite the city's reputation. Shops are open. Traffic is heavy. Families walk along the sidewalks and watch the military convoy. Hodges stops at an abandoned hotel surrounded by vacant lots.

HODGES: This is a hotel, huh?

BOWMAN: He planned to rent the building to house new police recruits expected to pay $4,000 a month in rent. That's not going to happen. The owner walks over and tells Hodges he's already rented the place for $10,000 to another American government agency. The owner of the building's name? Karzai.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JONATHAN VANCE: Are you related to President Karzai?

KARZAI: He's my cousin.

VANCE: Big family.

KARZAI: Yeah.

BOWMAN: That's another problem. The Karzai family has a tight grip on Kandahar. The president's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is head of the provincial council and the biggest powerbroker in town. He's also accused of stealing public and private land, and providing support to drug traffickers. Most officials here steer away from even talking about him.

VANCE: Yeah, you're on very sensitive ground there, I got to tell you.

BOWMAN: Canadian Brigadier General Jonathan Vance commands U.S. and allied forces around Kandahar.

VANCE: He has great capacity to do things that we need. But if you're in a country that has been in peril for so long, any powerful person, your capacity to survive is pretty good and the methods of that survival sometimes don't pass the sniff test.

BOWMAN: The corruption is made worse by the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent by the Americans here on everything from rental housing and trucking to construction and security. The U.S. is struggling to find a way to spread that wealth so a few powerbrokers don't grab it all. But there's no good solution yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER)

BOWMAN: On to the next stop and the next challenge. Hodges climbs into his helicopter and flies north over the city and toward a narrow strip of green. Orchards and fields hug the river below. Beyond that is desert. This is Zhari, a hiding place for Taliban fighters.

The helicopter lands at Forward Operating Base Wilson, a jumble of tents and newly constructed plywood buildings.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERATING CENTER)

BOWMAN: Inside the military operations center, Hodges and a few other officers unfold a map, showing where the American and Afghan soldiers will operate in Zhari.

NICK CARTER: There will be 3,000 people in here?

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

CARTER: Five? Five thousand.

BOWMAN: One of the officers is British Major General Nick Carter, commander of all U.S. and allied forces in the south. To win Kandahar, the allies must root the Taliban from Zhari.

CARTER: I think it's still the case that the insurgency has got a significant amount of freedom of movement in Zhari, and that's inevitable given that we haven't really had much of a presence here for last few years.

BOWMAN: There's a lot of presence now. The 800 American soldiers here have been replaced with as many as 8,000 U.S. and Afghan troops. They'll start patrolling next month, pause for the holy month of Ramadan in August, then go after the Taliban in September.

But how do they measure success? How will they know if it's working or not? General Carter says the big test is not how many Taliban they kill. It's whether the local meetings called shuras are well represented.

CARTER: That'll give you a sense of whether you're being successful or not because when it's not representative, it probably means the security situation is not ideal...

BOWMAN: They're afraid to come to shuras.

CARTER: And they're intimidated, and they don't have freedom of movement.

BOWMAN: But Carter says Afghans want more than just a meeting.

CARTER: I mean, they want to be able to educate their children. They want access to basic health care. They don't really want a lot of central government. But they do want access to the capacity of government to solve their problems.

BOWMAN: That's one of the most important unanswered questions: Will the government of President Hamid Karzai do its part? Hodges ponders that question back at the base.

HODGES: We can't force them to do that. Don't want to force them to do that, and frankly, you know, the Afghans will come up with a better solution than Hodges could ever come up with. But we got to create the space for them to be able to do that.

BOWMAN: And with that, General Ben Hodges grabs a cigar, a Montecristo, and calls it a day.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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