A convoy of hulking U.S. Army Stryker vehicles slowly makes its way through the main bazaar near the center of Panjwai district in southern Afghanistan. Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban, and Panjwai district has seen some of the most brutal fighting of the Afghan war.
Some 90 NATO troops have been killed and more than 800 wounded in just this district.
But rather than having white-knuckled grips on their guns, U.S. soldiers are able to wave to the children in the streets. It's something that would have been unthinkable a year or two ago.
Today, Panjwai is considered safe. And that turnaround happened as U.S. forces were shipping out last year. There were as many as 3,000 U.S. and NATO troops there a few years ago. Now there's just one U.S. Army company left. Afghan forces are in charge of security, and as they tell it, the Taliban won't be returning to the district.
The change in this corner of Afghanistan comes as the country prepares to hold a presidential election on Saturday to replace President Hamid Karzai, and as the U.S. prepares to withdraw all combat forces by the end of the year.
U.S. troops have come to the Panjwai district center this day not for tactical reasons, but to say goodbye. Col. Douglas Sims, commander of Combined Task Force Dragoon, is visiting with the district governor, Haji Faizal Mohammad, before the American unit leaves Afghanistan.
There is a lot of good-natured banter and back-patting between the two.
"It's really dramatic how much progress you've made really in the last six months," says Sims.
"Because of your cooperation and advice, a lot of good things have happened here," says Mohammad.
Getting Fed Up With The Taliban
Suddenly, heavy gunfire rings out nearby. But no one in the room flinches. It turns out it's just Afghan forces at a neighboring firing range. Almost as if planned, Sims cites the gunfire as an example of the security in Panjwai.
"The only way you'll hear small arms fire or machine gun fire anymore is to hear it at a range at the district center," he says.
Mohammad says the improved security is a result of a convergence of factors.
First, he says the people of Panjwai simply got tired of the Taliban, who did things like forcing local families to host their fighters or planting roadside bombs that sometimes killed children.
Second, with the urging of villagers, the Afghan forces launched a series of major clearing operations.
And third, Mohammad says the local government stepped up with more projects and services to win the support of the people.
Lt. Col. Khan Aga, a battalion commander in the Afghan army here, says the security operations were successful because of the improved coordination among the Afghan army, national police, local police and intelligence service.
He says there are new checkpoints and security forces all over the district now.
A Dramatic Turnaround
Given the bloody history, this turnaround is striking. Panjwai was a Taliban haven, and daily life for the farming families here was filled with firefights and roadside bombs. But not anymore, says Sims.
"It sounds too good to be true, because if you've been here before, you're like, Panjwai is this hellacious place where there's always fighting," he says.
Sims says even he was shocked by the operations conducted by the Afghan forces and how many improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, they were finding. After one operation, the Afghan forces told Sims they have uncovered and neutralized 255 roadside bombs.
Sims says the Americans didn't believe it at first. "We're like: Come on, that's got to be wrong. We went out there, it wasn't 255. It was like 258."
Today shops are open, kids are playing in the streets, and Afghan, not Taliban flags, are flying everywhere. The residents we spoke with say the Taliban are gone and they feel secure with the Afghan forces in charge.
"There is no fear and no threat," says Panjwai resident Zalmai, who gave only one name. "The Taliban don't have the local support they did in the past."
Haji Abdul Rahim, a 60-year-old resident, says the departure of NATO forces was the turning point.
"In the past, the Taliban had enormous support from the people because of the large number of American troops and bases in Panjwai," he says.
But Rahim warns these changes are not irreversible. He says the government must do a better job of eliminating corruption and delivering services to the people.
"If the government fails," he says, "people might become disaffected and again sympathize with the Taliban."