In Kandahar, aggressive police officers at checkpoints suggest the government controls this city in southern Afghanistan.
In reality, the Taliban is in charge: Militants have paralyzed Kandahar with an escalating campaign of threats, attacks and assassinations. Kandahar's mayor has taken refuge in the heavily guarded governor's compound. His deputy was fatally shot while praying at a local mosque.
These days, the sound of motorcycles makes the city's residents very nervous.
Motorcycles are the preferred mode of transportation for Taliban hit men.
Meeting The Militant Leader
The Taliban commander who calls himself Mullawi Mohammadi is no exception. For a rare face-to-face interview, Mohammadi arrived at a Kandahar guesthouse on a black motorbike. He was unarmed and alone.
After exchanging a quick, traditional hug with my translator, he entered the room I had rented at the far end of the garden for our talk.
We told Mohammadi the room is where a Los Angeles Times colleague and I are staying.
But the guesthouse is a good distance from our real hotel. We didn't trust him to see it, fearing he might bomb it as the Taliban has done to other hotels catering to foreigners.
The lack of trust is mutual: Mohammadi refused to take the sheer chai we poured for him, fearing the sweetened tea boiled in milk was poisoned.
He swapped the SIM cards in his cell phone in case we shared his number with the authorities. Then, he turned on his phone's recording device, taping me as I taped him for the interview.
Taliban Gearing Up For Fight
Mohammadi told us he commanded a squad of 10 men outside the city. But his eloquence and appearance suggested he is more than a field commander.
His black beard was neat and trimmed. His white tunic and baggy pants, made of high-quality cotton, were clean. So were his hands and feet, which isn't the case with Afghans who live and fight outdoors.
A black and gray silk turban flecked with gold thread covered his hair. He wore stylish sunglasses with the brand name "Sniper," which he continued to wear while indoors.
Mohammadi said militants are flooding into Kandahar province in advance of U.S. military operations planned there this summer. He added that many of the militants are in Kandahar city, where they blend in with the estimated 1 million residents.
"Our Taliban fighters are coming from Helmand, from Uruzgan, from all over Afghanistan. We are well-organized, and we are ready to defeat them when the offensive starts. We are not scared," he said.
He said the militants get their weapons from shopkeepers who buy them from Afghan police officers.
Murder Of The Deputy Mayor
Mohammadi was more evasive on the question of assassinations. Many killers only claim to belong to the Taliban, he explained.
When pressed on the murder three weeks ago of Azizullah Yarmal, Kandahar's deputy mayor, Mohammadi replied: "Yes, yes, we killed him."
Mohammadi said the reason the deputy mayor was killed was that he was living in a house that belonged to a Taliban fighter. Mohammadi says the fighter warned Yarmal to get out, and that Yarmal told him to get lost.
He said the militant later went into the mosque where Yarmal was praying, told the handful of worshippers to not look up, and shot the deputy mayor dead.
In an interview, Yarmal's eldest son, Samiullah, rejected Mohammadi's reason for the attack. He said his family has lived in the house for five generations.
Taliban Targets Only Those Who Disobey
But his details on the shooting were similar to the account by the Taliban commander. He said none of the terrified witnesses to the slaying say they saw the killers.
"As you know, everybody, they are just like, they can't say anything. Even if they saw somebody, they wouldn't say anything" out of fear, he said.
The brazen killings are having a chilling effect on the city, according to Samiullah and others in Kandahar.
But Mohammadi said people needn't be afraid if they obey the Taliban.
The people killed by militants have it coming, he said. Mohammadi added that all were warned three times to stop doing whatever they were doing to offend the Taliban.