KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When the muezzins' calls summon the faithful of Afghanistan's second largest city to morning prayers, the senior cleric remains inside the crumbling walls of an old army base, sitting at the microphone of a low-power radio station that's become his pulpit.
"I am so much under threat that I can't walk on the street," said Maulawi Ubaidullah Hikmat, the head of Kandahar Province's official Islamic council, who beams daily sermons over a 1,000-watt transmitter, protected by a solitary bodyguard. "I can't even preach in my own mosque."
Hikmat's fear — driven by a Taliban murder campaign that's killed hundreds of Afghan officials, clerics, tribal elders and others affiliated with the U.S.-backed government — contrasts sharply with the Obama administration's assertion of "great progress" 10 years after the Oct. 7, 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.
As he tries to wind down the longest war in U.S. history, President Barack Obama says his strategy has turned the tables on the Taliban and allowed U.S. combat forces to begin withdrawing. But many Afghan officials and ordinary people counter that the insurgents are merely lying low, waiting out the U.S. drawdown, and worry that U.S. policy is turning the clock back to the civil war that was convulsing their country at the time of the invasion.
"How can they say there is security here?" asked Zmari Khan, a Kandahar city police chief and a survivor of four assassination attempts by Taliban suicide bombings. The attacks scarred his body, blew off fingers and toes and rendered his left arm useless.
"There is no option for me," he said. "I am killing them (the Taliban) or they will kill me. We have been betrayed by everybody."
U.S. officials and commanders argue that last year's surge of 33,000 U.S. soldiers, intensified U.S. and Afghan night raids and larger, better-trained Afghan security forces have turned the tide against the Taliban in their southern heartland and brought relative stability to areas long under their sway.
"We have reversed the Taliban's momentum in Afghanistan," Obama declared to Congress in a Sept. 30 letter accompanying his latest status report on the war.
After 1,800 U.S. soldiers dead, some 13,000 wounded and more than $444 billion in costs — not to mention an economically battered electorate at home that's increasingly opposed to the war — Obama on June 22 announced the start of the U.S. combat troop pullout. The surge troops are to be gone by next summer, and Afghan forces are to assume full responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
"The insurgents' ability to control territory has diminished" and they are "losing ground," Assistant Defense Secretary Michele Flournoy assured a Sept. 23 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.
On the surface, that assessment seemed accurate during a recent visit to Kandahar city and surrounding areas — where the hard-line Islamic movement began in 1994 — by a McClatchy correspondent wearing Afghan garb and accompanied by a translator and a driver.
Districts where it once was too dangerous to drive were thick with traffic. Local bazaars appeared to be thriving. Schools were open. Gaggles of young men splashed in irrigation canals to escape the broiling heat. Fields brimmed with eggplants, melons and other crops.