KANDAHAR, Afghanistan – Schoolteacher Abdul Rahman drops his voice to a whisper as he watches U.S. troops guard a street where insurgents attacked a police headquarters a day earlier in this capital of the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban.
"The foreign forces are everywhere, but they are not helping us," Rahman said as he sat in a cracked plastic lawn chair with his friends outside a photo shop.
Residents of the impoverished city of 800,000 people live in fear, even as they see heavily armed NATO troops patrolling the streets in armored vehicles every day and snarling traffic. There are 1,600 Afghan policemen in Kandahar — 800 more than last year. The Afghan police are partnered with 850 U.S. military police — up from 170 last summer. Still most Afghans are deeply suspicious of their police, they often see as corrupt.
In a brazen daytime suicide attack, Taliban militants wearing explosives-filled vests hit the police station with an arsenal of car bombs, automatic rifle fire and rocket-propelled grenades over the weekend. At least 18 people, many of them police, died and dozens were wounded. Earlier this month, the deputy governor of the province was killed by a suicide bomber.
The owner of the photo shop, a man named Sadiqullah, knows that his business would have been banned under the Taliban, whose rigid Islamic teachings also forbade television and music. Yet he said he would trade his ability to run a photo studio for security.
"Now that the Taliban are gone we can work in our shop, but there is no security and no business," said Sadiqullah. "During the Taliban, there was security. There were no thieves. Whoever can bring us security — those are the ones we want. Nothing is more important than our lives."
Frustrated and fearful residents wonder about their fate nearly 10 years after the Taliban abandoned their headquarters and Washington's Afghan allies took power.
Washington's top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, says security has improved since tens of thousands of troops were deployed in the south and his counterinsurgency strategy kicked into high gear
But the weekend attack on the Kandahar police headquarters in the center of Kandahar demonstrated the difficulty NATO and U.S. soldiers face in undercutting the Taliban's ability to terrorize.
"Where is the security?" asked Bibi, a scarf embroiderer who has lived her 60-plus years in Kandahar and has little good to say about the past decade since the U.S.-led invasion liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule. "Every day has gotten worse for the last 10 years."
Paindo, a frail-looking woman in her 40s who sat on a carpeted floor working with Bibi, added: "It just keeps getting worse."
Attacks also have picked up in Kabul — three since mid-January compared with four in the last six months of 2010. The attacks came despite NATO's efforts to kill and detain insurgent leaders, seize weapons and tighten security around population centers.
Petraeus has tempered assessments of Taliban defeats and NATO successes with a warning of greater bloodshed in the months ahead as the weather warms. That's when the success of operations in districts surrounding the city of Kandahar — Panjwai, Zhari and Arghandab — will be put to the test. Insurgents traditionally step up fighting as winter fades to spring and movement becomes easier.
"They are still there. They have a say, and they can be strong," German Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the international military coalition, said Monday about the recent attack in Kandahar. "But, bottom line ... we can clearly see we were able to make progress in terms of weakening the insurgency."
Several villagers interviewed by The Associated Press from the Arghandab district said they would wait for spring to decide whether the Taliban's guerrilla fighting abilities have been weakened.
"There is no Taliban operations just because of the winter. We will know when spring comes," said Mohammed Anwar of the Argandab district's village of Chor Gholba. "If this time they have no success against the Taliban, then for us we will think they cannot win this battle ever. Our houses have been destroyed by NATO and still if they cannot take and keep hold of the area, they should get out."
NATO troops leveled dozens of houses to clear the area of improvised explosive devices and booby traps, Anwar said.
In the last four months, NATO has paid about $1.4 million in compensation to Afghan villagers but Anwar complained that corrupt government officials have distributed the money to their friends and relatives, ignoring others whose property was damaged or destroyed.
When the Taliban were still in charge in Kandahar, residents wondered why Osama bin Laden didn't use his money to build roads and improve life in the city. They were told that if life was too comfortable, nobody would be inspired to fight.
Several residents angrily asked why their life was no better with the ouster of the Taliban, although none was willing to be quoted by name on a subject that involved bin Laden.
Today — with Kandahar still lacking electricity, with roads still deeply potholed, and with scores of daily wage earners standing in freezing early morning weather hoping to get work at a construction site or digging ditches — many lament that the billions of dollars in Western aid that has come to Afghanistan has not brought basic services or improvements.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council and brother of President Hamid Karzai, said ordinary Afghans have an unrealistic view of the international forces, particularly the Americans. In an interview at his well-protected home in Kandahar, he explained that the U.S., in particular, is a hostage to its own superpower image.
Most Afghans don't understand why the United States hasn't been able to defeat the insurgency in the last decade.
"A country as powerful as the United States could crush the Taliban if they wanted to," said Abdullah, who uses only one name and works for an aid organization.
"How is it possible that the Taliban with only Kalashnikovs and explosives cannot be defeated by America?" he asked.
His only explanation is the popular conspiracy theory among Afghans that U.S. and NATO forces are secretly working with the Taliban and Pakistan in order keep a permanent presence in the country.
"They want to stay here," Abdullah said. "That is why we have this insecurity."
Kathy Gannon is Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.