For years, Kandahar province has been a key focus of NATO's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. The volatile region is the birthplace of the Taliban, and its capital is the country's second-largest city.
American troops have begun leaving this area by the thousands and are handing security responsibilities over to Afghan forces. Afghan officials claim things are getting better.
But many residents don't trust Western forces or their own government's claims, and they are now turning to a third party for help.
A Dangerous City
On a recent morning outside the main government compound in Panjwai district, provincial officials review plans for a new bazaar.
A year ago, the officials say, such a commercial venture wouldn't have been possible because of militants terrorizing this district, a 40-minute drive southwest of Kandahar city.
These days, provincial authorities are looking to attract investment and create jobs as the Afghan government attempts to strengthen its presence here.
Kandahar Gov. Tooryalai Wesa attends a packed meeting with Panjwai officials and residents. Several residents complain about schools that were promised but never built because funding wasn't sent from Kabul.
They also complain about Taliban fighters using tractors to tear up parts of a key road. That irritates Wesa, who demands to know why residents aren't standing up to them.
On the drive back to Kandahar city, Wesa explains his tough words.
"We built the road with the support of the Canadians when they were here, and so part of that road was damaged by the insurgencies. So that's why I told them, you know, that's your job — you have to protect the road you are using," says Wesa. "You are taking your agricultural products to the market, you are taking your patients to the doctor, you are sending children to school using that road, so you have to protect the roads."
Wesa believes the province will never be secure if residents don't cooperate. He says that in some districts where people have turned against the Taliban, the reward has been more development aid and an improved economy.
"And as I told them," he says, "if I put a tank on each house, still, if you do not support, that will not help. The tanks, the artilleries cannot bring peace. You folks can bring the peace here."
But many people in Panjwai say they feel powerless living with insecurity they describe as the worst in years. It's especially bad in outlying areas where residents talk of frequent battles between the Taliban and U.S. and Afghan forces.
One such resident is Mullah Baran, 38. His younger brother was killed in a massacre last March blamed on a U.S. soldier. That soldier — Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — is awaiting trial on charges that he fatally shot 16 civilians in two villages of the district.
Baran says roadside bombs, raids by Afghan police and soldiers, and fighting that he claims destroyed his orchards forced him to move his extended family away from their home village.
He says he used some of the $50,000 the U.S. paid in compensation to the families of the March shooting to buy property in a safer area.
A day laborer named Jabar Khan also complains about the lack of security in Panjwai. He says he's especially scared of roadside bombs, which have killed whole families here.
That tracks with NATO reports on the security situation in Kandahar. While coalition officials say urban and district centers are largely safe, they agree with locals that travel by road has become more deadly here and in neighboring Helmand.
Roadside bombings, which are down elsewhere in Afghanistan, are up 3 percent here.
The U.N. estimates that assassinations of officials and tribal elders are up a staggering 53 percent across Afghanistan over the past year, and they are especially common in Kandahar.
Taking Matters Into Their Own Hands
At the house of provincial council chief Ehsan Noorzai, stern-looking bodyguards armed with Kalashnikovs keep a close eye on guests who meet with him.
Noorzai is among the few Afghan officials here who doesn't sugarcoat his concerns about the dangers of living in Kandahar.
He accuses Afghan forces of being corrupt and inept, and criticizes American forces for failing to reverse the worsening security trend — not just here, but across Afghanistan.
"If they were really here to rebuild Afghanistan, insecurity wouldn't be increasing day by day," says Noorzai. "They also said they would develop our country and make it prosperous. What have they done? The Taliban government, I'm sorry to say, was much better."
Noorzai says he also doesn't trust his government — which many Afghans view as corrupt and self-serving — to address the concerns of Kandahar residents.
He and about 50 other like-minded officials, tribal leaders and influential elders from across the province have been meeting in secret for the past two months to try to come up with a homegrown plan to revive Kandahar.
A similar plan was quashed four years ago by the Afghan president's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was Kandahar's top strongman. The proposal called for forming a council with representatives from the main tribes who would take over the duties of the existing provincial government.
Karzai was assassinated by one of his bodyguards last summer. With him gone, Noorzai believes there's no one to stop them this time from getting their plan launched.
"The idea is to come up with ways to address the current situation and expand our group's size to 1,500, and then descend on the government in Kabul," Noorzai says.
He admits it won't be easy. A lot of people they attempt to recruit to their group decline because they fear being killed, Noorzai says.
But others interviewed say they feel the government is making strides in improving security, at least in Kandahar city. Terrorist attacks are noticeably down in the provincial capital compared with last year.
Many credit the 20-something provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, for whipping his force into shape and cracking down on militants and criminals in the city.
His policemen run strict checkpoints on roads leading into Kandahar.
Raziq suffered serious injuries in an assassination attempt last week. A suicide truck bomber struck his convoy as he was returning to the city from a nearby community.
The fear of assassination attempts is evident at government compounds here: They are hidden from view by multiple layers of blast walls and razor wire.
But for the most part, residents interviewed in the provincial capital say they feel safer than before.
"We see more presence of the government everywhere," says Ehsanullah Ehsan, the headmaster of a co-ed school in Kandahar city. "That attention needs to continue. That attention needs to solidify. And then you can have stability."