MELISSA BLOCK, host: This summer in southern Afghanistan, two assassinations paralyzed the city of Kandahar with fears of a power vacuum. First, President Hamid Karzai's half brother was gunned down. Ahmed Wali Karzai had been considered the unofficial kingpin of the south. Two weeks later, a Taliban assassin killed the city's mayor with a bomb concealed in his turban. Afghan and U.S. officials worried the killings might undo progress made by the American-led troop surge in the south.
But NPR's Quil Lawrence reports dire predictions have not come true.
QUIL LAWRENCE: As the sun falls behind Kandahar's jagged rocky hills, dozens of farm workers unload wattle baskets of pomegranates, some of them bursting open with ruby seeds. They pack the fruit into softer cardboard boxes in a marketplace on the west side of the city, where shippers buy them for resale across the country.
As he bends over a scale weighted with a few kilos of stones, a farmer named Sediqallah says he brought this harvest from the former combat zone of Arghandab, northwest of the city.
NATO officials say Kandahar's improved security is thanks to the American troop surge last year that saw heavy battles, to clear surrounding districts like Arghandab. It's easier to get to market now, Sediqallah says.
SEDIQALLAH: (Through translator) It's easier to get our pomegranates out to the market now. The roads are safer now. Nobody stops you now.
LAWRENCE: The roads are safe without any military checkpoints or insurgent bombs, he adds. Sediqallah's complaints now sound like a farmer anywhere - the road needs improvement and the rains came too late. But the security, he says, improved dramatically several months ago.
John McNamara, deputy head of the American Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, says the assassinations of both Ahmed Wali Karzai and the mayor, Ghulam Hamidi, have not upset progress.
JOHN MCNAMARA: I think the situation is better than many had feared, and I think it's primarily because it's not about individuals here. Even when a terrific leader like Mayor Hamidi is slain by the enemy, there are enough people that he's trained, and he's led, and molded that can continue on his work, continue his agenda and continue the improvements that he started over his four and a half years as mayor of Kandahar City.
LAWRENCE: Indeed, the mayor's deputy seems to have carried on in his place. The case of Ahmed Wali Karzai is a bit more complicated and very much about individuals. Karzai was rumored to have a hand in everything that went on in Kandahar and the region - tribal affairs, politics, security, and all manner of business. And for years, American officials considered him the boss of Afghanistan's billion dollar opium trade.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)
LAWRENCE: A gushing fountain at a traffic circle seems extravagant in dusty Kandahar, but Ahmed Wali Karzai built several of them in his upscale gated community east of the city.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION)
LAWRENCE: Construction workers still labor here, putting up a modern shopping mall and apartment blocks. But local residents say the real estate prices have dropped.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) He was better about assuring security of this area. There was a lot more interest in the business and a lot of people were kind of afraid of him.
LAWRENCE: Ahmed Wali Karzai guaranteed security in this part of the city, says a bakery worker named Ghamay. But he adds that even with Ahmed Wali gone, it still feels safer over the past several months with fewer attacks on American troops and fewer Afghans getting caught in the crossfire. Residents say they credit the new police chief with keeping order and recently replacing several corrupt police officers.
Also, power is less concentrated in Karzai's tribe. That's according to Ustad Abdul Halim, a tribal leader in Kandahar who gave an interview in his garden surrounded by caged songbirds
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS)
USTAD ABDUL HALIM: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: When Ahmed Wali Karzai was alive, every member of the Popolzai Tribe was a king, he said. The power is in the hands of the government now, says Halim, and everyone is equal.
Several other Kandaharis privately acknowledge that business has become easier without the former kingpin around to give approval and to take his share of most every transaction in the city. None of Ahmed Wali Karzai's successors - in tribal affairs, security, or business - has anything like his power. As long as that lasts, residents say, Kandahar's government will move slowly but surely ahead.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.