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Afghanistan's linchpin: Kandahar

Kandahar is the Taliban's stronghold and target of an allied assault in Afghanistan. Can NATO win hearts and minds as well as territory?

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Captain Matt said the same phenomenon was visible in Marjah. "This place has largely been stripped of its leadership.... We try to tell people that if you want yourselves to be represented then you need to do x, y, and z. We try to emphasize that, hey, it's your leaders," he said. "We want to emphasize that, not impose it."

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But progress is slow, with potential leaders choosing to remain in the shadows. "A man with a gun rules 100," Matt says. "The coalition doesn't rule by fear – [and] a carrot doesn't do so much."

Tribal wars even more fierce

The Taliban have also been quick to exploit tribal enmities. When NATO and Afghan forces swept into the Horn in 2006, in one of three previous campaigns to rid the place of insurgents, the arrival of Afghan Border Police from a traditional rival of the predominant Noorzai tribe sparked such fierce fighting that it made the struggle between pro- and antigovernment forces look tame. By backing the Noorzais, the Taliban bought themselves an entire tribal block.

Local history is also a factor, especially in the Horn, which has traditionally supported a lot of illegal activity. Criminal networks existed here long before the coup in 1973, the communist countercoup in 1978, and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979. Government writ didn't really extend this far, and so the militants filled the vacuum.

Residents of Zangabad, a bucolic slice of orchards and irrigation ditches that Afghan troops stormed on Oct. 16, claim there was a Taliban court there, dispensing swift if brutal justice, and reportedly in direct competition with Kandahar City courts, which are perceived as sluggish, expensive, and corrupt.

Most locals dislike either option

Yet a major factor in the outcome of Kandahar, say top commanders, is the Afghan government's ability to deliver. That's the Achilles heel of NATO efforts to stabilize the country.

Although villagers who have lived under the Taliban's austere sway have little love for the insurgents, they are not altogether convinced by the other side's offer. Tales of police arranging for kidnappings, private militias snatching land, and government officials extorting civilians are commonplace in Kan­dahar.

"One man says he likes the Taliban," ex­plains Haji Abdul Karim, an elder from the Noorzai tribe and an old acquaintance of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. "One man says he likes the government. But the majority hate both."

In contrast to earlier NATO promises to sideline "malign actors" (also known as the Kandahar mafia), military commanders in southern Afghanistan are taking a new approach and have now quietly dropped their opposition to the region's power brokers, and instead have reconciled themselves to working with them.

The alienation factor this tactic creates is undeniable: "There are many warlords in the government working to acquire money, not bring security," says Haji Mohammad Zahir, a businessman from the Zhari district. People join the insurgents "because of the government's corruption, bribes, and extortion," he says.

Still, the security in Kandahar is a big step toward allowing locals to even consider such issues Hodges says: "There is a presence of security that is a lot more prevalent and reassuring than at any time in the past."

David Francis contributed reporting to this story.

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