KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Flying out of this city in a Blackhawk helicopter, one passes over a large walled compound that contains a traditional two-story Afghan house built around a courtyard, in which sits a small white-domed mosque.
This once was the home base of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar, from which he ruled most of the country. Now called Camp Gecko, and crammed with many added buildings, it is a base for U.S. special forces and - as any Kandahari will tell you - the CIA.
No question many things have changed here. Much of Kandahar city and surrounding province were under Taliban control a year ago, but key districts have been cleared by a surge of U.S. and Afghan forces during the last eight months.
However, Kandahar is still hotly contested; the Taliban recognizes its symbolic value and launched a flashy coordinated attack on key municipal buildings last week. "Kandahar city is a war zone right in the middle of a proxy war between radical Islam . . . and the West," one U.S. officer rightly told me.
So, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, when Washington is debating how fast U.S. troops can hand off responsibility to Afghan forces, I wanted to see how much progress had been made in the province.
Flying offers a dramatic view of Kandahar, a low, dusty town of 800,000 with long rutted boulevards lined with open-air markets and small shops. The city is surrounded by rocky outcroppings in the middle of a desert plain. Just beyond the city's edge lies the stunning green belt of the Arghandab district, through which run canals built by U.S. engineers in the 1950s and 1960s that turned desert into fertile land.
The U.S. strategy has been to set up small outposts throughout Arghandab, manned by special-forces teams that help create units of Afghan Local Police (ALP), a local protection force that reports to and supplements the Afghan National Police (ANP).
Many doubt that the ALP is the crucial element the military claims. But if properly controlled by the district police chief so that it doesn't turn into a predatory militia, the ALP can provide jobs (at $120 a month) and assist the police.
Case study: Taben is a fly speck mud-brick village of 500 souls, with a bazaar of five shops, that had been Taliban-controlled until special forces pushed them out. Mosques were asked to choose leaders who assembled a shura that elected Mohammed Issak as their malik, or leader. Issak, a skinny former cop, along with his village committee, helped the special forces vet ALP members. In return, the village got U.S. military help to fund development projects.
Issak knows the risk of Taliban assassination is high. As the new spring fighting season starts, he tells me, "I'm ready to make the sacrifice."
Next stop, Khakrez district, in the north of Kandahar province, where special forces are also based. Khakrez is poor but has the potential, in times of peace, to profit from the presence of Afghanistan's third most popular religious shrine. The Taliban, which disdains such shrines, has attacked this one many times.
In Khakrez, the key was to find a better district governor and chief of police. These officials are appointed by Kabul, and too often prey upon locals, pushing them toward the Taliban. Balancing tribal interests when making these picks is also important.
In this case, with U.S. nudging, the appointees appear to be effective. District chief Kaydum Khan stood in front of a photo of previous governors and police chiefs killed by the Taliban - including his brother, two years ago. "I'll never quit," he says.
As we sit down on cushions to a meal of potatoes, lentils, okra, and flat bread, he says of his brother, "When he was killed we only had 20 soldiers to protect the district center and we got attacked by hundreds of Taliban.
"The only reason things are better now is that we have U.S. forces, the Afghan National Army [ANA], and the Afghan National Police, and good coordination between all of us. Before, the coordination was very limited."
Khan says it is important for him to have a district police chief who knows the area. (Afghan police are national, and often the chief appointed by Kabul is from elsewhere.)
He has two further messages: First, Afghanistan will only be safe when America forces Pakistan to stop sheltering the Taliban, who have a safe haven just across the border from Kandahar. Second, "If the Americans leave, the Pakistani government will push the Taliban into this country to fight. We are scared there will be a lot of killing and death."
Next, a meeting with the Arghandab governor, Haji Shah Mohammed, a rotund, bearded, turbaned official who says, "Eight months ago everyone knew the Taliban was everywhere here. Since then a lot of ANP, ANA, and coalition support has helped a lot." Now, he says, the villagers have less fear of intimidation, and are able to travel again on roads that have been freed from Taliban control.
Still, the governor says that he and his family regularly get threats, and the Afghan central government is "so weak" that they can't support the ANA and ANP. "If coalition forces leave," he says, "a lot of people will be killed."
The takeaway is this: There has indeed been progress made in clearing Taliban forces out of Kandahar province, progress heavily dependent on U.S. military support for the Afghan army and police. But progress also depends on the all-too-rare appointment of strong district officials, who are popular with local villagers and tribes.
The local populations seem to have little love for the Taliban, but can't yet stand up to it without U.S. help, especially when Pakistan provides safe havens to which the Taliban can retreat.
Can these gains be solidified? Can good officials be protected from assassination? Perhaps, but it will take more time and U.S. training for Afghan security forces. The transition from NATO to Afghan security control will run from 2011 to the end of 2014. Even if things don't regress, Kandahar clearly will not be ready until the far end.
In the meantime, other developments - possibly a new U.S. policy toward Pakistan or a decision by the Taliban, under pressure, to talk - might speed the day when Afghans can handle more of their own security.
No guarantees here, but some basis for hope.
Read Trudy Rubin's reports from Kandahar, Kabul, and Islamabad at www.philly.com/trudyrubin EndText