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Almost daily, Taliban assassins target Afghan government officials and community elders with ambushes or bombings. The United Nations says such killings are up more than 50 percent compared to the same period last year.
On Monday, the target was the powerful police chief in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province. A suicide bomber struck the convoy of Gen. Abdul Raziq, who survived the attack and is at a U.S. military hospital recuperating from burns and other injuries.
Strikes like these are a constant concern for officials such as Mohammad Omar, the mayor of Kandahar city, whose office is hidden behind concrete blast walls and razor wire. Any resident who comes to see him is repeatedly patted down and searched.
The measures make the 34-year-old mayor feel safe but unhappy. Omar explains that he hates being cut off from his constituents. They can't come to him easily with their problems. He, in turn, has a hard time figuring out their needs.
Heavy Security Required
Yet even now, Afghan and American security officials who advise him believe the fortresslike compound isn't secure enough, Omar says. They want to build a new security gate for the municipality.
There's good reason for their concerns. Omar's predecessor was assassinated 13 months ago inside the same compound by a suicide bomber with explosives hidden in his turban.
The new mayor says he has received death threats. He holds up his cellphone and displays a contact with a name that is the Afghan word for assassin.
Omar says that's how the caller identified himself when he contacted him last week. The man warned the mayor that he would be killed if he didn't quit his job.
Across town in his heavily guarded home, the new provincial council chief, Ehsan Noorzai, receives similar phone threats. He replaced Ahmed Wali Karzai — the half-brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a longtime Kandahar strongman — who was also killed 13 months ago.
Noorzai says he often wonders whether he will be next. But he adds that with a bulletproof SUV and dozens of loyal friends serving as bodyguards, he's in better shape than most.
He says tribal elders and lower-ranking government officials across Kandahar province don't have nearly as much protection.
Tamim Nuristani, the governor of Nuristan province in northeast Afghanistan, agrees. He views such attacks as acts of Taliban desperation.
"They are going after officials who are working for the people," he says, adding that the Taliban target "those people who are influential in that area, because they are against the Taliban and they see that they stop their advances."
Despite Risk, Work Goes On
But Nuristani, who once owned a string of pizza parlors in California, is worried. Last month, Taliban militants attacked him twice in the course of 24 hours.
"If this continues, that's going to affect the security, that's going to affect development, that affects good governance," Nuristani says.
Reached by phone, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi boasts that targeted killings are effective. He says his group doesn't view such attacks as killing Afghans; they're considered infidels who work with the NATO-led coalition and turn the country away from its Islamic roots.
Ahmadi says they haven't decided yet whether to stop such killings once Western troops leave.
On the road to Kandahar in a heavily armored convoy, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa, who has survived two assassination attempts, says he's at peace with the prospect of dying if it comes to that.
He, like many officials interviewed here, says Afghans aren't dissuaded from signing up for government posts because of targeted killings.
"The interest in the government is getting higher. Last year or the year before, it was very difficult to recruit people into government," Wesa says. "But now, each week the civilian service announces positions through the media. We receive several hundred [resumes] for the jobs."
Wesa adds that young people in particular are flocking to government work, cutting into the Taliban's recruitment pool.