KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — American forces have begun operations to push back Taliban insurgents in this most important southern province, the birthplace and spiritual home of the Taliban, and a full-scale offensive is expected in coming weeks.
Army Specialist Cade Kitchens searched a farmer in Kandahar Province, whose residents feel under threat from both sides. But the Taliban have already turned this city into a battlefield as they prepare for the operation, which American officials hope will be decisive in breaking the insurgency’s grip on southern Afghanistan.
When American forces all arrive, they will encounter challenges larger than any other in Afghanistan. Taliban suicide bombings and assassinations have left this city virtually paralyzed by fear. The insurgents boldly walk the streets, visit shops and even press people into keeping guns and other supplies in their houses for them in preparation for urban warfare, residents say.
The government, corrupt and ineffective, lacks almost any popular support. Anyone connected to the government lives in fear of assassination. Its few officials sit barricaded behind high blast walls. Services are scant. Security, people say, is at its worst since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.
“They are focusing on the city,” said Hajji Agha Lalai, a provincial councilor and former head of the peace and reconciliation commission in Kandahar, who has extensive contacts with the Taliban. “The Taliban want to show themselves to the world, to show, ‘We are here,’ ” he said.
The intensifying Taliban campaign is a measure of the importance the insurgency places on Kandahar, where the bulk of the 30,000 additional American forces arriving this year are being deployed. That is a sign of its value to the Americans, too.
The scale of the coming American offensive is expected to dwarf the recent operation in Marja, in neighboring Helmand Province, where 15,000 American, NATO and Afghan forces were deployed to secure an area much smaller than this provincial capital of 500,000 people.
American forces have been preparing for Kandahar since last year, building a presence around this city and along the border with Pakistan to try to secure the province. But as a result, in the most important urban center in southern Afghanistan, life has rapidly deteriorated, residents say.
On March 13, suicide bombers killed 35 people, and the Taliban have issued repeated warnings that they are in the city and planning more attacks.
“We do not feel safe in town, and even for the men it is dangerous to go out,” said a female human rights worker who asked not to be named for fear of being singled out by the insurgents.
In the week before the bombings, officials said, the Taliban conducted a series of attacks on the police and other officials in the city, killing one or two police officers every night for several days and seizing their weapons.
A government official, the well-liked head of the province’s Information and Culture Department, Abdul Majeed Babai, was gunned down on his way to work on Feb. 24. He had received threats from the Taliban, who wanted him to leave his position, relatives said.
“The Taliban can walk around, and government officials cannot,” Hajji Lalai said.
The man nominally in charge of Kandahar Province, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa, sat alone in his office reading papers on a recent afternoon. The spacious lawns and rooms of his palace, thronged by tribal elders and petitioners a few years ago, stood empty and silent.
Outside the city, it is worse. Government services barely exist. Only 5 of 17 districts in the province are accessible for government officials. Four districts are completely under the control of the insurgents, according to Nader Nadery, deputy head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Administrators and police chiefs are appointed to the districts, but they have so little backup and so few resources, they can do little. With 40 to 60 police officers in each district, they can barely guard the district center.
Health services and education are virtually absent outside the towns, and two-thirds of the province’s schools are closed, human rights officials say.
“If a single nurse or midwife is working in the districts, you can call me bad names,” a women’s activist, Shahida Hussain, said. “Even in the city, they don’t have enough equipment — forget the districts.”
Afghan officials in the district of Spinboldak on the Pakistan border said their area was more secure since American soldiers of the Stryker Brigade were deployed there last year to try to close down Taliban infiltration routes, or “rat lines,” as soldiers call them. The road to Spinboldak had grown safer, and a radio tower had been installed that would allow the government to reach Afghans throughout the border region, the governor, Mr. Wesa, said on a recent visit.
Yet the Taliban have repeatedly hit Stryker units in another strategic district, Arghandab, just to the north of Kandahar city with roadside bombs.
In Malahjat and Panjwai, agricultural districts to the west and southwest of Kandahar city, farmers say they are under constant threat from mines laid by the militants, as well as from American drones and helicopters combing the skies.
Villagers described at least three instances in recent weeks when drone strikes killed farmers digging ditches or bringing goods home from the market, as well as other cases when Taliban fighters were hit.
American helicopters swoop in on villagers who are on motorbikes or are working in the fields and hover over them until the men remove clothing and stand with their arms aloft to show they are not militants, said one man who frequently visits his village by motorbike from the city. He asked not to be named for fear of trouble from any side.
In addition to the dangers, residents say they are despairing about the political crisis gripping the province.
Real power rests with just two families who have prospered under the presence of American forces in the past eight years. One of them is the family of President Hamid Karzai, who is represented here by his brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who heads the provincial council.
The other belongs to Gul Agha Shirzai, the former governor of Kandahar, and his brothers Bacha Shirzai and Razziq Shirzai, who have gotten lucrative security and construction deals with NATO forces.
Residents and elders accuse the families of persecuting rivals and excluding all other tribes from access to power. Their domination has undercut any popular backing for the government or the foreign forces supporting them.
“The first thing Afghans fear is the coming of more foreign troops, and the second thing they fear is the empowering of the current leadership and administration,” said Shahabuddin Akhunzada, a tribal elder from Kandahar city. His Eshaqzai tribe has complained of repeated arrests and political exclusion. The West’s acceptance of Mr. Karzai’s re-election despite widespread fraud was the last straw, he said.
“The Americans, the international community, all the military forces have lost the people’s trust,” he added. “We don’t trust what they say anymore.”

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