KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When the muezzins' calls summon the faithful of Afghanistan's second largest city to morning prayers, the senior cleric remains inside the crumbling walls of an old army base, sitting at the microphone of a low-power radio station that's become his pulpit.
"I am so much under threat that I can't walk on the street," said Maulawi Ubaidullah Hikmat, the head of Kandahar Province's official Islamic council, who beams daily sermons over a 1,000-watt transmitter, protected by a solitary bodyguard. "I can't even preach in my own mosque."
Hikmat's fear — driven by a Taliban murder campaign that's killed hundreds of Afghan officials, clerics, tribal elders and others affiliated with the U.S.-backed government — contrasts sharply with the Obama administration's assertion of "great progress" 10 years after the Oct. 7, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
As he tries to wind down the longest war in U.S. history, President Barack Obama says his strategy has turned the tables on the Taliban and allowed U.S. combat forces to begin withdrawing. But many Afghan officials and ordinary people counter that the insurgents are merely lying low, waiting out the U.S. drawdown, and worry that U.S. policy is turning the clock back to the civil war that was convulsing their country at the time of the invasion.
"How can they say there is security here?" asked Zmari Khan, a Kandahar city police chief and a survivor of four assassination attempts by Taliban suicide bombings. The attacks scarred his body, blew off fingers and toes and rendered his left arm useless.
"There is no option for me," he said. "I am killing them (the Taliban) or they will kill me. We have been betrayed by everybody."
U.S. officials and commanders argue that last year's surge of 33,000 U.S. soldiers, intensified U.S. and Afghan night raids and larger, better-trained Afghan security forces have turned the tide against the Taliban in their southern heartland and brought relative stability to areas long under their sway.
"We have reversed the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan," Obama declared to Congress in a Sept. 30 letter accompanying his latest status report on the war.
After 1,800 U.S. soldiers dead, some 13,000 wounded and more than $444 billion in costs — not to mention an economically battered electorate at home that's increasingly opposed to the war — Obama on June 22 announced the start of the U.S. combat troop pullout. The surge troops are to be gone by next summer, and Afghan forces are to assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
"The insurgents' ability to control territory has diminished" and they are "losing ground," Assistant Defense Secretary Michele Flournoy assured a Sept. 23 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
On the surface, that assessment seemed accurate during a recent visit to Kandahar city and surrounding areas — where the hard-line Islamic movement began in 1994 — by a McClatchy correspondent wearing Afghan garb and accompanied by a translator and a driver.
Districts where it once was too dangerous to drive were thick with traffic. Local bazaars appeared to be thriving. Schools were open. Gaggles of young men splashed in irrigation canals to escape the broiling heat. Fields brimmed with eggplants, melons and other crops.
"Now, it's totally different," said Shah Mohammad Ahmadi, the governor of Arghandab, a district of 150,000 people, rich with orchards and vineyards, that for several years saw some of the war's bloodiest fighting. "Now we have access to all of the villages and the villages have access to us."
But Ahmadi works inside a fortress-like combat outpost manned by U.S. and Afghan troops. He echoed warnings by other officials and ordinary Afghans that the security gains in Kandahar and neighboring Helmand Province, another Taliban stronghold, were superficial.
"I've told the Americans many times that they need to stay longer," Ahmadi said. "If they leave, we will lose all of our gains for the last 10 years."
Afghans say that the Taliban — unable to prevail in conventional battles against the stronger, high-tech U.S. forces — have resorted to guerrilla tactics of roadside and suicide bombings, assassinations and kidnappings. The attacks have eroded public trust in the government of President Hamid Karzai and fueled U.S. opposition to the war.
"Where is the weakness of the Taliban? Even with two men, they can shake the province. Why are the Americans saying the Taliban is weak?" asked Haji Toorjan, a former low-level insurgent commander. "Look how the Russians were defeated here. They were defeated by guerrilla warfare."
Toorjan is among only about 150 militants in the south who have surrendered this year under a U.S.-backed amnesty program, according to a U.S. military document obtained by McClatchy. The insurgents maintain shadow local and provincial governments across the country, and when members are killed or captured in night raids, they're quickly replaced, often by younger, more radical militants, according to some Afghan officials and independent experts.
The insurgency's top leaders, meanwhile, are biding their time in sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan, supported by Pakistan's army-run Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, waiting for the U.S. troops to leave, according to Afghan and U.S. officials. Pakistan denies the allegations.
"The Pakistani goal is that they don't want Afghanistan developed or peaceful," said Maulvi Noor ul Aziz, a veteran mid-level Taliban commander who surrendered earlier this year because of what he charged was a growing Pakistani role in the insurgency.
"A peaceful Afghanistan is not in the interests of Pakistan, because there would be no more aid money from the United States sent to Pakistan," he said.
Some Afghans expressed little confidence that their forces could replace the U.S. surge troops.
"The ANA (Afghan National Army) just sit in their posts and don't come out," complained Sardar Mohammad, 24, as he sat with other villagers in a field next to piles of purple eggplants they'd just harvested. "They won't bother with what is going on in the villages."
The men complained that village guard units known as "arbaki" — recruited, trained and armed under a U.S.-funded program extolled as a success by American military commanders — are resorting to extortion and robbery, creating new recruits for the insurgents or forcing victims to flee.
One man, Shah Wali, recounted how an arbaki threatened to plant explosives near his house and tell U.S. forces that he was an insurgent unless Wali paid him 50,000 afghanis — about $1,150. Worried that if he bowed to the blackmail the arbaki would double the sum, Wali fled his village and came to Kandahar.
Many local officials and Afghans are deeply afraid that the U.S. troop drawdown will reignite the devastating civil war between the Taliban, who are dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and the Northern Alliance, a coalition of mainly ethnic minorities whose leaders now control key government posts.
They worry that Pakistan — obsessed with preventing Afghanistan from falling under the influence of its foe and regional superpower, India — will step up support for the Taliban. India, determined to stop Pakistan from turning Afghanistan into a sanctuary for Islamic militants who've killed hundreds of its citizens, could respond by backing the minorities as it did before the U.S. invasion, raising the danger of a direct clash between the nuclear-armed rivals.
Senior U.S. officials seldom discuss it, but they also see the threat of renewed civil war. On Sept. 22, in his final testimony to a congressional committee before retiring as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen warned: "If we continue to draw down forces at pace while ... public and systemic corruption is left unchecked, I believe we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect the Afghans to have faith.
"At best, this would lead to localized conflicts inside the country. At worst, it could lead to government collapse and civil war."
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, insisted in an Aug. 13 interview that "we are not going to repeat 1990," when the United States disengaged from Afghanistan at the end of the 1979-89 Soviet occupation. That policy contributed to the Taliban takeover in 1996, which paved the way for al Qaida's arrival.
Crocker said that the United States envisions "a strategic relationship" with Afghanistan "as far as the eye can see." But that's hardly comforting to Haji Khallar Khan, one of many tribal elders from around the province who have fled to Kandahar city to escape assassination by the Taliban.
"In my district, only the district office and a U.S. base are safe, yet they are still fired on," said Khan, a local council member from Maiwand, a district bordering Helmand Province. "You can't go anywhere else without security. In the bazaar, in the shops, the Taliban just sit there. The Americans don't recognize them."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.