THE WASHINGTON TIMES KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The sight of children playing outside is a good sign, but people of any age are still scarce on the streets of Kandahar.
"The Taliban has lost lots of support by killing innocent civilians, so during the day it"s fairly secure and people are out," said Lt. James Des James, before a convoy of four armored vehicles rumbled out of the Canadians" concrete fortress deep within the warrens of this strategic desert city, the second largest in the country.
"Today there"s commercial activity again, fresh fruits in the market," Lt. James said
In the city center, local produce was on display at vendor stalls, along with flea-bitten shanks of meat and shiny new home appliances from Pakistan and China. But relatively few customers browse the market or walk the streets.
Unlike last year, when the Taliban fought gun battles against NATO"s multinational force across the southern provinces, militants now increasingly rely on roadside bombs and other terrorist tactics to thwart reconstruction efforts around their former capital.
A Canadian convoy was attacked Friday by a suicide bomber here. No troops were injured, but earlier in the week a Canadian soldier was killed when a roadside bomb was detonated near his vehicle about 24 miles north of the city.
Roadside bombs have killed 17 of the 57 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan to date.
On this late spring afternoon, haggard children were about the only people moving around. A passing military convoy received the thumbs-up sign from some and a middle finger from others — emblematic of the divided perspectives here.
The 110-degree heat is a factor, too, but some local entrepreneurs say it is mainly fear that stifles commerce in the south"s traditional trading hub.
"There are security problems here in Kandahar city," said Mohammad Salim, an Afghani contractor for construction projects. "Each year since [the 2001 fall of the Taliban], business has been good. This year there is no one coming."
"If [NATO] was not here, we could not even work for one hour," he added.
According to a 2006 survey by Altai Consulting, 84 percent of Afghans nationwide said their lives are better now than under the Taliban. In the south, this number plummets to just 40 percent.
Leaders of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) later spoke with local leaders at a mosque, where they had funded construction of a water well for devotees to perform ablutions before prayer.
Afghan elders shook hands with team members, touching their hearts in a traditional gesture of gratitude.
But as the team prepared to leave 20 minutes later, Mr. Salim admitted that some Taliban fighters were holed up about four rows back from where they stood — a tricky, if common scenario for security forces who know part-time fighters stash their weapons and blend in when it"s convenient.
"It"s time to go," said Lt. James. "We"ve been here longer than I"m comfortable with."
Navigating the city"s bullet-strafed roads to visit project sites is a tense affair. Gunners inside the armored vehicles trained their sights on Toyota Corollas, vans and even motorcycles potentially packed with lethal explosives.
NATO officials say terrorist tactics are being used much more frequently this spring, a sign the insurgency has been hurt by an aggressive counteroffensive begun last year that has killed hundreds of fighters and eliminated key Taliban commanders.
"We are now seeing the fruits of Operation Medusa, which has had a tremendous effect on the leadership of the Taliban," said Canadian Lt. Col. Bob Chamberlain, commander of the Kandahar PRT.
Suicide bombings are down compared with last year, Western officials say, considered a sign that the hard-core, or "first-tier" Taliban leaders are finding it harder to attract less-motivated "second-tier" recruits for suicide missions.
Regardless of the tactics used, ordinary Afghans continue to bear the brunt of Taliban violence. A Friday suicide attack in neighboring Uruzgan province killed 13 Afghans, including five children and a Dutch soldier.