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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Afghanistan, Taliban assassins target government officials and community elders with near daily ambushes and bombings. The United Nations reports that such killings are up by half this year over the same period last year. On Monday, the target was Kandahar's powerful police chief whose convoy was struck by a suicide bomber. He's now at a U.S. military hospital recuperating from his injuries.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson was in Kandahar earlier this week. She reports that the Taliban strategy is cutting off many Afghans from their government.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In Kandahar, the office of Mayor Mohammad Omar is hidden behind concrete blast walls and razor wire. Any resident who comes to see him is repeatedly patted down and searched. The measures make the 34-year-old mayor feel safe but unhappy.

You don't like these things.

MAYOR MOHAMMAD OMAR: Yes.

NELSON: Why?

OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Omar explains that he hates being cut off from his constituents. They can't easily come to him with their problems. He, in turn, has a hard time figuring out their needs.

Yet even now, Afghan and American security officials who advise him believe the fortress-like compound isn't secure enough, Omar says.

OMAR: They want to build new security gate for the municipality.

NELSON: There's good reason for their concerns. Omar's predecessor was assassinated 13 months ago inside this very compound by a suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his turban.

OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The new mayor says he has received death threats. He holds up his cell phone and displays a contact with a name that is the Afghan word for assassin. Omar says that's how the caller identified himself when he contacted him last week. The man warned the mayor he would be killed if he didn't quit his job.

Across town in his heavily guarded home, the new provincial council chief, Ehsan Noorzai, receives similar phone threats. He replaced Ahmed Wali Karzai, the longtime Kandahar strongman, who was also killed 13 months ago.

EHSAN NOORZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Noorzai says he often wonders whether he will be next. But he adds that with a bulletproof SUV and dozens of loyal friends serving as bodyguards, he's in better shape than most. He says tribal elders and lower ranking government officials across Kandahar province don't have nearly as much protection.

Nuristan's Governor Tamim Nuristani agrees. He views such attacks as acts of Taliban desperation.

GOVERNOR TAMIM NURISTANI: And they are going after officials who are working for the people and people loving them, and those people who are influential in that areas because they are against the Taliban and they see them - that they stop their advances.

NELSON: But this onetime owner of a string of California pizza parlors is worried. Last month, he was attacked by Taliban militants twice in the space of 24 hours.

NURISTANI: If this continue, that's going to affect the security, that's going to affect development, that going to affect the good governance.

QARI YOUSEF AHMADI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Reached by phone, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi boasts that targeted killings are effective. He adds his group doesn't view such attacks as killing Afghans, but rather infidels who work with the NATO-led coalition and turn the country away from its Islamic roots.

AHMADI: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Ahmadi says they haven't decided yet whether to stop such killings once Western troops leave.

On the road to Kandahar in a heavily armored convoy, Governor Toorayali Wesa, who has survived two assassination attempts, says he's at peace with the prospect of dying if it comes to that. He, like many officials interviewed here, claims that Afghans aren't dissuaded from signing up for government posts because of targeted killings.

GOVERNOR TOORAYALI WESA: The interest in the government is getting higher. Like last year or the year before last was very difficult to recruit people in government. But now, each week, the civilian service announce position through the media. We receive several hundred CVs for the jobs.

NELSON: Wesa adds that young people in particular are flocking to government work, cutting into the Taliban's recruitment pool.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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