KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Tooryalai Wesa was sitting in his office just three months after starting his new job as governor of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan when he heard the deafening noise of rockets and bombs exploding nearby.
As it turned out, the attack was only the first of nine times that the Taliban have tried to assassinate the 63-year-old former professor of agriculture since December 2008, when he left his position at a Canadian university for what is arguably one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
Still, he stays.
The determination of Wesa, and other highly educated Afghans who returned from self-imposed exile after the collapse of the Taliban, has taken on increased importance ahead of a 2014 deadline for most U.S. and allied troops to withdraw. The pullout could put billions of dollars in annual international military and development aid at risk and place increasing importance on the role of local and national politicians and civil workers to fill the vacuum in rebuilding the country.
"I have survived nine attacks from different directions but I stay because I feel I have made a difference," Wesa said in a recent interview from behind his desk, which was cluttered with papers, files and a souvenir mug from Niagara Falls.
So far this year, the Taliban have killed nearly three dozen government officials, including police chiefs and provincial council leaders, according to statistics kept by The Associated Press. The Islamic militant movement said earlier this year that it would step up targeting of senior officials in a campaign to undermine the Western-backed government and intimidate Afghans from joining government institutions. The systematic assaults have turned government offices throughout the country into bunkers.
Many of those killed had left places of refuge in the West to help narrow the yawning gaps in expertise left by three decades of war that devastated large swaths of Afghanistan and drove millions to flee the country.
In July 2011, a suicide bomber killed Wesa's friend, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, who had left the United States to be Kandahar's mayor. In October, the governor of eastern Logar province, Arsala Jamal, also a Canadian, died when a bomb hidden in a microphone exploded as he greeted worshippers at a mosque.
Wesa, who has held his post longer than any of his predecessors installed after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, said he won't be frightened out of his job.
"I didn't choose Kandahar, the president chose me," he said inside his office crowded with overstuffed chairs and a giant portrait of Karzai. "I am ready to give my life. Never before has anyone served five consecutive years."
Wesa said he continues to make education a priority and while progress has been slow, enrollment has risen steadily since Karzai appointed him to be governor.
"It is the youth that brought me back," he said, launching into a reminiscence of his childhood in Kandahar before successive wars devastated the education system. During the Taliban's five-year rule that ended in 2001, education was denied girls and a strict interpretation of Islam was imposed. Despite progress, education remains a major problem in Afghanistan where the majority of teachers are poorly qualified, the curriculum is antiquated and facilities are often dilapidated. "I am so sorry for today's youth. What I had, today's young cannot even dream of."
Wesa visited the school he attended as a teenager in Kandahar. Its condition exemplified the trouble faced by today's students. He found cluttered workshops, broken equipment and chairs piled up in grimy hallways, paint peeling off the vaulted ceilings. He listened to teachers and students complain about the lack of electricity and jobs for graduates.
His performance as governor has received mixed reviews in Kandahar, where many attack the government for the relentless poverty and high unemployment that remains despite U.S.-Afghan offensives and reconstruction efforts. Yet others applaud his efforts to promote education and his criticism of international development aid that he says has been wasted because donors "came and said 'this is what you need,' instead of asking 'what do you need?'"
Wesa fled the country with his family in December 1991, months before the pro-Communist government collapsed, paving the way for the U.S.-backed Islamic guerrillas or mujahedeen to take control. Their relentless killing and thieving allowed the Taliban to assume power in 1996.
He said his return to Afghanistan also has been a family affair.
His wife Rangina, a gynecologist, trains midwives and two of his daughters — one a lawyer, the other an economist — are advising government ministries in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Soon after arriving in Kandahar, Rangina fled back to Canada and begged her husband to come with her after finding the remnants of a secret prison in the basement of the temporary residence where the family lives while the 150-year-old governor's mansion is being renovated.
"It smelled like an anatomy lab," she said, recalling the sight of spikes and chains on the blood-stained floor, apparently tools used by one of her husband's post-Taliban predecessors to torture his opponents.
It took six months for Wesa to persuade his wife to return.
"He was calling and telling me 'it would get better, we had much to do,'" she said, playing with the pale blue scarf that covered her head.
The governor's wife also remembered that first attack targeting her husband, which involved five suicide bombers and a truck packed with explosives. From her basement safe room, she heard the relentless machine-gun fire as guards battled the attackers, then explosions from rockets fired from a nearby building, and finally the massive truck bombing. The next morning she stepped outside her gate to find body parts still strewn across the pavement.
Hamid M. Saboory, another Canadian educator who teaches law at a private university in the Afghan capital, said the Taliban campaign has failed to scare away most Afghans with dual nationalities. Several are even running for president in next year's elections.
"I think there is a sense of nationalism among Afghans who chose to return," said Saboory. "They see that there is a clear danger, especially for high profile government officials in very unstable regions, yet they willingly accept the job."
Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed at www.twitter.com/kathygannon