This past summer, two assassinations paralyzed the southern Afghan city of Kandahar with fears of a power vacuum.
In the first incident, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, considered the unofficial kingpin of the south, was gunned down in July by a close associate. Two weeks later, a Taliban assassin killed the city's mayor, Ghulam Hamidi, with a bomb concealed in his turban.
Officials worried the killings might undo hard-won progress made by the American-led troop surge into southern Afghanistan. But so far, the dire predictions have not come to pass.
In fact, many in Kandahar say security has improved dramatically over the past several months.
Carrying On Mayor's Work
Among them is Sediqallah, a farmer who on a recent day has brought his harvest of pomegranates from the former combat zone of Arghandab, northwest of the city, to the marketplace on Kandahar city's west side.
NATO officials say Kandahar's improved security is thanks to the American troop surge last year, which saw heavy battles to clear surrounding districts like Arghandab. It's easier to get to market now, Sediqallah says.
"The roads are safer now. Nobody stops you now," Sediqallah says, adding that the roads are free of both military checkpoints and insurgent bombs.
Sediqallah's complaints now sound like a farmer anywhere: The road needs improving, and the rains came too late.
John McNamara, deputy head of the American Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, says the assassinations of both Ahmed Wali Karzai and the mayor have not upset progress.
"I think the situation is better than many had feared, and I think it's primarily because it's not about individuals here," McNamara says. "Even when a terrific leader like Mayor Hamidi is slain by the enemy, there are enough people that he's trained and he's led and molded that can continue on his work, continue his agenda, and continue the improvements that he started over his 4 1/2 years as mayor."
And indeed, the mayor's deputy seems to have carried on in his place.
The case of Ahmed Wali Karzai is a bit more complicated — and very much about individuals. Karzai was rumored to have a hand in everything that went on in Kandahar and the region: tribal affairs, politics, security and all manner of business. And for years, American officials considered him the boss of Afghanistan's billion-dollar opium trade.
Pros And Cons Of Karzai's Absence
A gushing fountain at a traffic circle seems extravagant in dusty Kandahar, but Karzai built several of them in his upscale gated community east of the city.
Construction workers still labor there, putting up a modern shopping mall and apartment blocks.
Ahmed Wali Karzai guaranteed security in this part of the city, says a bakery worker named Ghamay. But he adds that even with Karzai gone, it still feels safer over the past several months, with fewer attacks on American troops and fewer Afghans getting caught in the crossfire.
Residents say they credit the new police chief with keeping order and with recently replacing several corrupt police officers (although there have been allegations of human rights violations against him in the western press.). Also, power is less concentrated in Karzai's tribe, according to Ustad Abdul Halim, a tribal leader in Kandahar.
When Ahmed Wali Karzai was alive, every member of the tribe he belonged to, the Popolzai, was a king, Halim says. Now, he says, the power is in the hands of the government, and everyone is equal.
Several other Kandaharis privately acknowledge that business has become easier without the former kingpin around to give approval — and to take his share — of most every transaction in the city.
None of Ahmed Wali Karzai's successors — in tribal affairs, security or business — has anything like his power. As long as that lasts, residents say, Kandahar's government should move slowly but surely ahead.