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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We've been measuring the effects and the side-effects of a hunt for the Taliban.

INSKEEP: The American military is engaged in an operation called Dragon Strike. It's an effort to clear the countryside outside Kandahar, Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: That's the southern city that was once the heart of the Taliban's power. The good news is that the Taliban are fleeing the countryside.

INSKEEP: The bad news is where they're going instead.

We have two reports this morning starting with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN: Captain Brant Auge in Bravo Company has spent weeks clearing Taliban from the orchards and villages just west of Kandahar City. He's standing at an abandoned village, once a nest for Taliban fighters.

Captain BRANT AUGE (Company Commander, Bravo Company): The last couple of months after we started our clearance ops, it's completely emptied out and we haven't seen any activity.

BOWMAN: It's the same story throughout this 10-mile long battle zone. The Taliban have fled, along with much of the population.

Captain DAVITT BRODERICK (Company Commander, Bravo Company): All the populace is displaced currently.

BOWMAN: Captain Davitt Broderick commands Bravo Company, which is clearing the Panjwaii District, a half dozen miles from Captain Auge's outpost.

Capt. BRODERICK: The Taliban is what we believed pushed them out of here to use this area. It's kind of a base of operations for them.

BOWMAN: And now that the American military operation called Dragon Strike is nearing completion, American officers say they are seeing the Taliban react and improvise. The key feature of the new Taliban strategy - additional fighters, reinforcements, really - are arriving even as the Americans push out other Taliban in the area.

Major Basel Mixon is an intelligence officer with the 101st Airborne.

Major BASEL MIXON (Intelligence Officer, 101st Airborne Division): The Taliban are drawing fighters from across districts and provinces.

BOWMAN: Like the Arghandab District, just north of Kandahar City, neighboring Helmand Province, and from Pakistan as well. The Americans are already seeing evidence of the reinforcements.

Outside Kandahar City, they have just arrested a suspected Taliban cell leader and other fighters they say come from Pakistan.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BOWMAN: A dozen elders from the local village arrive at an American combat outpost to try to get some of the suspects released.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: He says that to assure that the guy that you took or captured, they are not the bad guy.

BOWMAN: After the elders leave, the commander here, Captain Nick Stout, says he has more than enough information on one of the detainees; a suspected Taliban cell leader who the Americans think plotted a motorcycle suicide attack that killed two U.S. soldiers. That suspect sits apart from a dozen others. He's sitting in a wooden shed, handcuffed, his face pointing towards the wall.

Captain Stout says that suicide attack was just the beginning.

Captain NICK STOUT (Commander, Alpha Company): The reporting that we were receiving was that they were planning to launch a series of complex attacks, specifically suicide attacks, in between the Zhari District and into Kandahar City.

BOWMAN: Kandahar City, that's always been the prize for both the Americans and the Taliban. It's the country's second largest city and the home base of the insurgency.

Now that the military operation outside the city is nearing an end, the Americans plan on spending the winter building up local governments, providing jobs and services to the people, as a way to blunt the insurgency.

Major Mixon, the intelligence officer, says the Taliban also have a plan for the winter.

Maj. MIXON: Some of them have gone into Kandahar City. I also believe, though, that's part of a larger campaign plan for the Taliban.

BOWMAN: Meaning some of the fight will shift from the outskirts of Kandahar to the city itself.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, the Zhari District outside Kandahar.

INSKEEP: And that's where we're going next, where the refugees as well as the Taliban have fled.

Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE: In the center of Kandahar, men are crowding the square near the governor's office, wearing wool blankets across their shoulders against the early morning chill.

LAWRENCE: They mob each visitor who walks by or pulls up in a motorized-rickshaw, offering a day's labor.

(Soundbite of motor running)

LAWRENCE: I've got papers, one of them says, trying to stand out in the crowd. The government has ruled that only documented Afghans can work.

These men are almost all recently uprooted from the orchards and farms of Arghandab and Zhari Districts outside the city. Now they're packed in to Kandahar's poorest neighborhoods. None of the displaced men would give their names, but a few agreed to talk.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Don't judge me by these pauper's clothes, says one. He fled Zhari District two months ago. The Taliban filled the orchards and roads with landmines and booby traps, he says, 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 a nephew, the man packed up his family and moved to the city.

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Now he does hard labor for 200 afghanis a day, about $4. Others tell similar stories about the destruction of a simple but viable life, in the rich farmland outside the city. They seem to fear the Americans and the Taliban equally.

Reconstruction aid, they say is going only to the cronies of the government.

Unidentified Man #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Were tired of complaining, says another farmer displaced from Zarey. Only god can help us.

(Soundbite of motorcycles)

LAWRENCE: But civilians are not the only ones coming to town. 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.

Mr. ABDULRIZAK PALWAL (Writer): The writers, wont express themselves quite openly because they're afraid. Even the religious people, they are shot in the mosques, inside, if they say anything against the Taliban.

LAWRENCE: But the Taliban have found plenty of support here which allows them to slip in among the civilian population. Young men have been encouraged to wage jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan, by preachers in the mosques as well as popular cell phone videos and ring tones heard around the city.

(Soundbite of ring tone song sang in foreign language)

LAWRENCE: One sings that anyone who works with non Muslims has lost his dignity and is no longer considered human, which would seem to give license to the wave of assassinations.

Mayor GHULAB HAIDAR HAMIDI (Kandahar): Just last week they shoot my one employee in the city and just yesterday he die.

LAWRENCE: Ghulab Haidar Hamidi, Kandahars mayor for nearly four years, says the government workers who die are usually low level clerks, people who have no body guards 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 - the Taliban are 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 only find 45 people brave enough to take jobs.

Mayor HAMIDI: My key employees quit the job, they are sitting at home because of the security.

LAWRENCE: The same morning as this interview last week, Hamidi lost another colleague. Ustad Ahmad Khan, who was deputy head of Kandahars department of literacy, gunned down as he went to work.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: The results of that Kandahar operation will be one factor in the Obama Administrations December review of Afghanistan policy.

INSKEEP: White House officials have been visiting Afghanistan as well as Pakistan to see how the effort is going. President Obama is aiming to at least begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the middle of next year.

MONTAGNE: Several lawmakers are in Kabul today to make their own assessment. They include Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

INSKEEP: As well as Senator Joe Lieberman and Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillebrand.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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