Flying out of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in a Black Hawk helicopter, one passes over a large walled compound that contains a traditional two-story Afghan house built around a courtyard, in which sits a small white-domed mosque.
This once was the home base of the Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, from which he ruled most of the country. Now called Camp Gecko and crammed with many added buildings, it is a base for U.S. special forces and — as any Kandahari will tell you — the CIA.
No question many things have changed here. Much of Kandahar city and surrounding province were under Taliban control a year ago, but key districts have been cleared by a surge of U.S. and Afghan forces during the past eight months.
However, Kandahar is still hotly contested; the Taliban recognizes its symbolic value and launched a flashy coordinated attack on key municipal buildings earlier this month.
So, in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death, when Washington is debating how fast U.S. troops can hand off responsibility to Afghan forces, I wanted to see how much progress had been made in the province.
The U.S. strategy has been to set up small outposts throughout Arghandab manned by special forces teams that help create units of Afghan Local Police, a local protection force that reports to and supplements the Afghan National Police.
We stop in Khakrez district, in the north of Kandahar province. The key here was to find a better district governor and chief of police. These officials are appointed by Kabul and too often prey upon locals, pushing them toward the Taliban.
In this case, with U.S. nudging, the appointees appear to be effective. District chief Kaydum Khan stood in front of a photo of previous governors and police chiefs killed by the Taliban — including his brother two years ago. "I'll never quit," he says.
"The only reason things are better now is that we have U.S. forces, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, and good coordination between all of us."
He has two more messages: First, Afghanistan will only be safe when America forces Pakistan to stop sheltering the Taliban, who have a safe haven just across the border from Kandahar. Second, "If the Americans leave, the Pakistani government will push the Taliban into this country to fight. We are scared there will be a lot of killing and death."
Next, a meeting with the Arghandab governor, Haji Shah Mohammed, a rotund, bearded, turbaned official who says, "Eight months ago everyone knew the Taliban was everywhere here." Since then, the support of the Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army and coalition "has helped a lot."
Still, the governor says that he and his family regularly get threats. "If coalition forces leave," he says, "a lot of people will be killed."
The takeaway message is this: There has indeed been progress made in clearing Taliban forces out of Kandahar province, progress heavily dependent on U.S. military support for the Afghan army and police. But progress also depends on the all-too-rare appointment of strong district officials, who are popular with local villagers and tribes.
Can these gains be solidified? Can good officials be protected from assassination? Perhaps, but it will take more time and U.S. training for Afghan security forces.
In the meantime, other developments — possibly a new U.S. policy toward Pakistan or a decision by the Taliban, under pressure, to talk — might speed the day when Afghans can handle more of their own security.
No guarantees here, but some basis for hope.