KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — U.S. and Canadian forces are rushing to train a police force capable of blunting a Taliban comeback in Kandahar, the major city in Afghanistan's volatile south, the militants' spiritual birthplace and the key to turning back the insurgency.
It's part of a larger effort that also aims to deliver services such as electricity and clean drinking water — encouraging support for the government in a city that was once the Taliban's headquarters.
"We have to do everything right, we have to be lucky and we have to be fast," said Bill Harris, who arrived in November to oversee the U.S. development effort in Kandahar.
"The city is kind of up for grabs, and we intend to get there first," Harris said.
Six months ago, NATO dispatched reinforcements into Kandahar, fearing the Taliban were encroaching on this city of 800,000 people and the main commercial center of the south, the primary battlefield of the Afghan war.
At the same time, the international community launched a program of economic aid and development projects here.
On the surface, Kandahar hardly looks like a city at war. Trucks rumble through its crowded streets overloaded with produce and consumer goods from Pakistan. Fruit and vegetable sellers clog busy avenues, competing for space with pedestrians and taxicabs stuffed with riders.
Yet the Taliban presence is never far in this city where the movement was born in the early 1990s and whose population is overwhelmingly Pashtun — the same ethnic group as the Taliban.
Without a respected police force, U.S. officials believe it is unlikely that the population will feel confident enough in the government to resist the insurgents. Traditionally, however, the police are among the least-trusted people in Kandahar.
Mindful of the challenge, the U.S. dispatched nearly 300 military police to Kandahar in August — a six-fold increase over the small Canadian and U.S. force that had been training Afghan police.
Instead of simply lecturing in the classroom, the Americans and Canadians now live and work alongside the 2,000-strong Afghan police force to mentor and lead by example.