KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Ed Pressman recently watched Afghan villagers holler at government officials at a local meeting. He took it as a sign of progress.
"Instead of going to the Taliban and saying 'Give us justice,' they are talking to government officials," said Pressman, a U.S. State Department employee working in Kandahar province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.
The scene described by Pressman is one of many indicators that the government is making small gains in a race to win the people's loyalty at a key front in the war. Both the Taliban and the government want to have the advantage if, as widely predicted, the fighting picks up in the spring.
But the risk of siding with the government or going on its payroll runs high. Routed from their hideouts by U.S., coalition and Afghan forces late last year, the Taliban are retaliating by targeting dozens of police and local officials, including the deputy governor of Kandahar province who was killed by a suicide bomber last week.
"My biggest fear is that if May comes along and we're suffering high-profile assassinations, then we have dropped the ball in terms of converting the security gains that have been so hard-won in 2010 and 2011 into a sustainable Afghan government," said Ben Moeling, director of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team at Camp Nathan Smith, a U.S.-run base in the city.
He keeps a photo by his desk of a bombed military vehicle as a not-so-subtle reminder: Even though the Afghan central government is slowly expanding its influence in the south, the Taliban's murder and intimidation campaign still rages.
For now, Moeling is working with Afghan government officials to entrench recent gains. The strategy is to build representative bodies at the village level that connect to the district and provincial centers. The biggest challenge is getting qualified people to accept dangerous government jobs — many that pay just $70 a month.
"You can't do anything with empty chairs," he said.
The government of President Hamid Karzai has made inroads in places where strong, well-respected district governors operate in areas mostly cleared of insurgent activity. Districts doing well also have good ties between tribal and shuras, or local councils, and the capital, Kabul.
Some civilian workers think that despite insurgent attacks, it will get easier to fill government posts. Karzai officials recently held successful job fairs in several districts, including Daman, which attracted so many applicants that the governor in nearby Panjwai district took on the overflow, hiring about a dozen people for his district.
Pressman said the Afghan people are exhausted by war. He thinks the assassination of Abdul Latif Ashna, the deputy governor who was a religious man and former dean of engineering at Kandahar University, could backfire on the Taliban.
"They killed one man, but made thousands of enemies," Pressman said.
While serious security concerns remain, there are more street vendors in Kandahar, people are moving back into the city of 800,000 and traffic is heavier. More than half of Governor Tooryalai Wesa's staff positions are filled and he frequently travels around the province to connect with district centers.
"We can see that the government is surely trying to bring a sense of security to our lives by coming up with better and more carefully thought out strategies to block the path of the Taliban in and out of the city," said Abdul Manan Sarhadi, a 37-year-old waiter in Kandahar. That has allowed people to focus on their work and worry less about being "blown away any second," he said.
Abdul Raziq, 31, works for a nonprofit organization in Kandahar. He also credited the government with the recent improvements but said these weren't yet enough "to gain the people's trust and confidence."
Moeling offers anecdotal evidence that other district governments are gaining stature.
About a year ago, the then governor of Zhari was stuck in his compound, unable to travel in large, dangerous swaths of his district. Moeling said he was surprised when just days after Afghan and coalition forces arrived, villagers quickly sided with the government.
"It wasn't like Thomas Jeffersonian democracy had arrived," Moeling said, but he noted that people lined up to disclose the location of roadside bombs and submit claims for battlefield damage.
Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, the new Zhari governor, said the troops' presence has made people feel safer and more are supporting the government.
"I'm not scared for my life, but the threat is always with us," he said. He doesn't have an office yet, and "I have only one bulletproof car so if anything happens to this car, I don't have any other option."
The governor of Nand district has survived three assassination attempts and lacks sufficient staff, but has worked to solve basic problems in villages and quickly open a school.
"I like what I see in Dand, but still there is no institutional structure," Moeling said. "By far, the biggest challenge that Afghanistan has is getting qualified staff."
The Taliban have fought hard to hold on to Arghandab, a heavily forested area that produces grapes, raisins and, last fall, a bumper pomegranate crop. Afghan and coalition troops conducted heavy clearing operations in the district, which is full of hideouts perfect for guerrilla fighting.
Clearing this district of insurgents has been an important gain because it was historically a pipeline for insurgents entering and leaving Kandahar city. But Moeling is wary.
"The fighting just died down in October," he said. "We're in the hold phase. We assume we have forward traction in Arghandab, but we're not advocating pulling any troops back right now."
Associated Press writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.