KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – "For God's sake, leave me!" shouted Mehmood, an auto parts salesman, when two men with AK-47 assault rifles accosted him outside a mosque in a garbage-lined alley.
Mehmood spoke his last words at 8:45 p.m. Wednesday, according to witnesses. They say he then tried to snatch the gun of one assailant, whose partner stepped up and shot him in the back.
The gunmen fled, and Mehmood died in the dirt, the victim of an apparent robbery attempt. On Thursday, hundreds of mourners attended his burial in a rare rainstorm in this desert city. The white sheet covering the body was stained with blood.
After a seven-year hiatus, crime is back in Kandahar, a city that was considered among the safest in Afghanistan in a time when the Taliban kept the peace with public killings, amputations and floggings.
Now the Taliban are gone, pummeled into oblivion by two months of relentless U.S. airstrikes, and so is their brutal brand of justice. The new authorities are weak, the police lack resources, and criminals see openings.
There are no statistics to prove that crime is up in Kandahar, but residents' reports of petty thefts and scattered shootings suggest it is. The former Taliban stronghold was said to be safer than other Afghan cities because virtually all residents belong to the same ethnic group, the majority Pashtuns.
Mehmood, who like many Afghans used only one name, died on a narrow, dusty lane flanked by earthen walls. Piles of trash are scattered about, and there is a stench from an open sewer. The crime was brazen because many nearby shops were open, and people were praying in an adjacent mosque when they heard three gunshots.
Haji Nasim, a cousin of the slain man, said his relative was on a motorbike and carried a packet containing 6 million Afghanis, the equivalent of dlrs 200. He speculated that the gunmen fled empty-handed because they botched their robbery attempt.
"This is the first such incident I've heard of in seven years," said Haji Mohammad, a friend of the victim. "There was no looting and robbing when the Taliban were in power."
Comprised mostly of Pashtuns, the Islamic militia seized Kandahar in 1994 and expanded their control to most of Afghanistan in the years that followed. They lost it all late last year when the United States launched bombing raids to punish them for harboring Usama bin Laden.
Neither Nasim — a gas station owner — nor Mohammad — an engine oil importer — said they wanted a return to Taliban rule. But they said security is their top priority, regardless of who controls Afghanistan.
Nasim said his gas station attendants told him they saw the body of another man who was shot Wednesday night near the airport, where the U.S. military has a large base. They did not know the circumstances of the killing, he said.
Police who questioned witnesses in Mehmood's death dispute his family's account, saying the victim had been pro-Taliban and was killed in a revenge attack.
"If they were robbers, why didn't they take the money and the motorbike? They had a plan to kill the man," said Pir Mohammed, chief of the local police station, a filthy, decrepit building.
Mohammed wore a green uniform and cap, but most of his 40 men were clad in civilian dress. Many were wild-eyed and unkempt. Two spat loudly on the floor of the main room in the station.
Ignoring them, the chief said he had only arrested a few people for drug offenses in his three months on the job. He said claims of a rise in crime were the work of Taliban supporters intent on slandering the new government.
Half of Mohammed's men carry assault rifles and haven't been paid, a potentially explosive combination.
The man in charge of Kandahar is Gul Agha, a former governor whose 1992-94 tenure was marked by lawlessness and corruption. He has promised to do better, and his troops regularly patrol the city and man checkposts at night.
"Our soldiers are disarming the people. The city is very secure," he told a group of local commanders this week.
However, vehicle searches in Kandahar are often cursory. "Got anything?" one soldier at the gates of the city asked a motorist before quickly waving him on.
U.S. Special Forces members also patrol the city, but they are not involved in routine law enforcement. And even they get duped. On Wednesday, two elite American soldiers entered a restaurant to complain that they had been charged too much for lunch on a previous visit.