KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - In four years serving as a governor in southern Afghanistan, Tooryalai Wesa has survived nine assassination attempts, most recently by a visitor who hid a pistol in the sole of his shoe.
It is a measure of the changes unfolding in his native Kandahar province -- also the birthplace of the Taliban -- that he seems more preoccupied with the size of his budget than the risk that his enemies might kill him.
“We don’t have enough resources from the government,” the burly technocrat said in an interview at his compound. “What was promised, even that was not enough for us.”
With most foreign combat troops due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, what happens in Kandahar will help decide whether President Barack Obama’s decision to send another 30,000 U.S. troops -- most to the south -- in 2010 set Afghanistan on the path to stability, or was a costly waste.
U.S. commanders who lobbied for the troop increase saw Kandahar as the make-or-break battleground, believing they needed to rout the Taliban on their home turf to reinvigorate the West’s faltering campaign.
With Obama’s “surge” force gone, U.S. and Afghan officials are looking for evidence that Kandahar has reached a tipping point where mutually dependent gains in security and governance are enough to ensure the Taliban cannot rise again.
Wesa says the U.S.-backed effort to transform Kandahar’s shell of a state into a credible administration is working, but he needs more money from Kabul more quickly to finish projects and provide services so disillusionment doesn’t set in.
“Afghanistan is new, the transition process is new, there are shortcomings, there are problems in each new system,” he said. “Hopefully in the near future it will be on time.”
The fact Wesa is even alive might be considered a victory.
Wesa, an unassuming professor of agriculture who spent years working in Canada, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai in late 2008. He did not strike U.S. officials as the most likely candidate to navigate the rough-and-tumble world of politics among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
When the troop surge started, U.S. officials feared mafia-style networks competing for a share of Afghanistan’s rich, illicit heroin trade, as well as huge war contracts, would stifle reconstruction projects. Wesa says the influence of Kandahar’s notorious warlords has started to wane.
“Those people are on the decline here,” he said. “They don’t have the luxuries they used to have here.”
In turn, Wesa’s own stature has grown by default.
In July 2011, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s half-brother and chairman of Kandahar’s provincial council, was assassinated. Despite the innocuous title, Ahmed Wali Karzai was in reality one of the most powerful men in Kandahar.
Slowly, basic administration has begun to develop after U.S. and Afghan troops, who suffered hundreds of casualties, advanced into hamlets, vineyards and orchards where Taliban bombs and snipers lay in wait.
Wesa said district governors can now drive to far-flung villages, once an unthinkable proposition. Complaints are finding their way to his office, a sign of a more meaningful link between rural areas and the city.
“The governance was not there. As soon as we got there, people were with us,” said Wesa in his office, where a large photograph of Hamid Karzai looms from behind his desk.
“The plan is to go further.”
Kandahar city certainly feels safer than it did in 2010, when it was repeatedly rocked by car bombings and tightly choreographed insurgent attacks. A brutally effective campaign of assassinations of officials has also slowed.
Wesa himself has not faced another attempt on his life since April’s failed shoe gunman.
There are other hopeful signs. Students are clamoring to enroll at Kandahar University and, in farming districts where U.S. forces have started to reduce their footprint, insurgents have yet to stage a meaningful comeback.
But the Taliban have not conceded. In August, the Kandahar police chief survived a bomb blast, while three of his men were killed in a bomb attack in Kandahar city last week. Insurgents still harry Afghan and U.S. forces in remote areas and nobody can be sure gains will survive as more foreign troops leave.
With Afghanistan’s elite starting to manoeuvre ahead of a presidential election in April 2014, when Karzai is due to step down, political careers are already in flux.
More significant than Wesa’s personal fate will be whether the administration that has started to evolve will endure. “The way things go, I think I am optimistic,” Wesa said.
“Do you think we will live in war forever?”
Editing by Michael Georgy and Paul Tait