- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Schoolteacher Abdul Rahman drops his voice to a whisper as he watches U.S. troops guard a street where insurgents attacked the police headquarters a day earlier in this capital of the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban.

“The foreign forces are everywhere, but they are not helping us,” Mr. Rahman said as he sat in a cracked plastic lawn chair with his friends outside a photo shop.

Residents of the impoverished city of 800,000 people live in fear, even as they see heavily armed NATO troops patrolling the streets in armored vehicles every day and snarling traffic. There are 1,600 Afghan policemen in Kandahar, 800 more than last year. The Afghan police are partnered with 850 U.S. military police, up from 170 last summer. Still, most Afghans are deeply suspicious of the police, whom they often see as corrupt.

In a brazen daytime suicide attack, Taliban militants wearing explosives-filled vests hit the police station with an arsenal of car bombs, automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades over the weekend. At least 18 people, many of them police, died, and dozens were wounded. Earlier this month, the deputy governor of the province was killed by a suicide bomber.

The owner of the photo shop, a man named Sadiqullah, knows that his business would have been banned under the Taliban, whose rigid Islamic teachings also forbade television and music. Yet he said he would trade his ability to run a photo studio for security.

“Now that the Taliban are gone, we can work in our shop, but there is no security and no business,” said Sadiqullah. “During the Taliban, there was security. There were no thieves. Whoever can bring us security — those are the ones we want. Nothing is more important than our lives.”

Frustrated and fearful residents wonder about their fate nearly 10 years after the Taliban abandoned their headquarters and Washington’s Afghan allies took power.

Washington’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, says security has improved since tens of thousands of troops were deployed in the south and his counterinsurgency strategy kicked into high gear

But the weekend attack on the Kandahar police headquarters in the center of the city demonstrated the difficulty NATO and U.S. soldiers face in undercutting the Taliban’s ability to terrorize.

“Where is the security?” asked Bibi, a scarf embroiderer who has lived her 60-plus years in Kandahar and has little good to say about the past decade since the U.S.-led invasion liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule. “Every day has gotten worse for the last 10 years.”

Paindo, a frail-looking woman in her 40s who sat on a carpeted floor working with Bibi, added, “It just keeps getting worse.”

Attacks also have picked up in Kabul — three since mid-January compared with four in the last six months of 2010. The attacks came despite NATO’s efforts to kill and detain insurgent leaders, seize weapons and tighten security around population centers.

Gen. Petraeus has tempered assessments of Taliban defeats and NATO successes with a warning of greater bloodshed in the months ahead as the weather warms. That’s when the success of operations in districts surrounding the city of Kandahar — Panjwai, Zhari and Arghandab — will be put to the test. Insurgents traditionally step up fighting as winter fades to spring and movement becomes easier.

“They are still there. They have a say, and they can be strong,” German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the international military coalition, said Monday about the recent attack in Kandahar. “But, bottom line … we can clearly see we were able to make progress in terms of weakening the insurgency.”

Several villagers interviewed by the Associated Press from the Arghandab district said they would wait for spring to decide whether the Taliban’s guerrilla-fighting abilities have been weakened.

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