DAVID GREENE, HOST:
As U.S. forces continue their pullout from Afghanistan, the nation's government is gaining more control, but it clearly needs to gain something else: the confidence of Afghanistan's people.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We'll hear now from southern Afghanistan, Kandahar Province, which may be the country's most important province and is also the birthplace of the Taliban.
GREENE: American troops have begun leaving this area by the thousands and are handing security responsibilities over to Afghan forces. But earlier this week, the U.S. suspended its training program for Afghan local police following a spike in deadly attacks by police recruits on coalition forces.
INSKEEP: And as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson discovered, many residents simply do not trust Western forces or their government to keep them safe.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: On a recent morning outside the main government compound in Panjwai District, provincial officials review plans for a new bazaar. A year ago, the officials say such a commercial venture wouldn't have been possible because of militants terrorizing this district, a 40-minute drive southwest of Kandahar City. These days, provincial authorities are looking to attract investment and create jobs as the Afghan government attempts to strengthen its presence here.
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NELSON: Governor Tooryalai Wesa attends a packed meeting with Panjwai officials and residents.
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NELSON: Several residents complain about schools that were promised but never built because funding wasn't sent from Kabul. They also complain about Taliban fighters using tractors to tear up parts of the key road. That irritates Governor Wesa.
TOORYALAI WESA: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He demands to know why residents aren't standing up to them.
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NELSON: On the drive back to Kandahar City, Wesa explains his tough words.
WESA: We built the road with the support of the Canadians when they were here, and so part of that road was damaged by the insurgencies. And so that's why I told them like, you know, that's your job, you have to protect the road, like, you know, you are using. You are taking your agricultural products to the market, you are taking your patients to the doctor, you are sending your children to school using that road, so you have to protect the roads.
NELSON: Wesa believes the province will never be secure if residents don't cooperate. He says that in some districts, where people have turned against the Taliban, the reward has been more development aid and an improved economy.
WESA: And as I told them, like, and if I - if I put a tank on each house, still, if you don't support, that will not help, like, you know - the tanks, the artilleries, cannot bring peace. You folks can bring the peace here.
NELSON: But many people in Panjwai say they feel powerless living with insecurity they describe as the worst in years. It's especially bad in outlying areas where residents talk of frequent battles between the Taliban and U.S. and Afghan forces. One such resident is Mullah Baran, who is 38. His younger brother was killed in a massacre last March blamed on a U.S. soldier. That soldier, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, is awaiting trial on charges he fatally shot 16 civilians in two villages of the district.
MULLAH BARAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Baran says roadside bombs, raids by Afghan police and soldiers, as well as fighting that he claims destroyed his orchards, forced him to move his extended family away from their home village. He says he used some of the $50,000 the U.S. paid in compensation to the families of the March shooting to buy property in a safer area. A day laborer named Jabar Khan also complains about the lack of security in Panjwai.
JABAR KHAN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He says he's especially scared of roadside bombs, which have killed whole families here. That tracks with NATO reports on the security situation in Kandahar. While coalition officials say urban and district centers are largely safe, they agree with the locals that travel by road has become more deadly here and in neighboring Helmand. Roadside bombings, which are down elsewhere in Afghanistan, are up three percent here. The U.N. estimates that assassinations of officials and tribal elders are up a staggering 53 percent across Afghanistan over the past year, and they are especially common in Kandahar. At the house of provincial council chief Ehsan Noorzai, stern-looking bodyguards armed with Kalashnikovs keep a close eye on guests who meet with him.
EHSAN NOORZAI: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Noorzai is among the few Afghan officials here who doesn't sugarcoat his concerns about the dangers of living in Kandahar. He accuses Afghan forces of being corrupt and inept, and criticizes American forces for failing to reverse the worsening security trend - not just here, but across Afghanistan.
NOORZAI: (Through translator) If they were really here to rebuild Afghanistan, insecurity wouldn't be increasing day by day. They also said they would develop our country and make it prosperous. But what have they done? The Taliban government, I'm sorry to say, was much better.
NELSON: Noorzai says he also doesn't trust his government, which many Afghans view as corrupt and self-serving, to address Kandahar residents' concerns. He and about 50 other like-minded individuals, tribal leaders and influential elders from across the province, have been meeting in secret for the past two months to try and come up with a homegrown plan to revive Kandahar. A similar plan was quashed four years ago by the Afghan president's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was Kandahar's top strongman. The proposal called for forming a council with representatives from the main tribes who would take over the duties of the existing provincial government. Karzai was assassinated by one of his bodyguards last summer. With him gone, Noorzai believes there's no one to stop them this time from getting their plan launched.
NOORZAI: (Through translator) The idea is to come up with ways to address the current situation and expand our group's size to 1,500, then descend on the government in Kabul.
NELSON: He admits it won't be easy. A lot of people they attempt to recruit to their group decline because they fear being killed, Noorzai says. But others interviewed say they feel the government is making strides in improving security, at least in Kandahar City. Terrorist attacks are noticeably fewer in the provincial capital than last year. Many credit the 20-something provincial police chief, General Abdul Raziq, for whipping his force into shape and cracking down on militants and criminals in the city. His policemen run strict checkpoints on roads leading into Kandahar. Raziq suffered serious injuries in an assassination attempt last week. A suicide truck bomber struck his convoy as he was returning to the city from a nearby community.
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NELSON: The fear of assassination attempts is evident at government compounds here. They are hidden from view by multiple layers of blast walls and razor wire. But for the most part, residents interviewed in the provincial capital say they feel safer than before. Ehsanullah Ehsan is headmaster of a co-ed school in Kandahar City.
EHSANULLAH EHSAN: We see more presence of the government everywhere. That attention needs to be - to solidify. And then you can have stability.
NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.
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