In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from U.S.-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.
And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar’s northern fringe where dozens of U.S. soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.
Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.
“We start this year in a very different place from last year,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.
The security improvements have been the result of intense fighting and the use of high-impact weapons systems not normally associated with the protect-the-population counterinsurgency mission.
In Sangin, Zhari and Arghandab — the three most insurgent-ridden districts in the south — the cost in American lives and limbs since the summer has been far greater than in any other part of the country. More than 40 Marines have been killed in Sangin in the past nine months, and three dozen more have lost both legs. The Army brigade responsible for Zhari and part of Arghandab has lost 63 soldiers since July.
The question of the moment for Petraeus and his subordinates is whether the gains will hold as Taliban commanders, laden with cash and munitions, stream across the desert from Pakistan, where there has been considerably less progress in denying them sanctuary.
Senior U.S. officers said they expect the insurgents to shift tactics: Instead of trying to take on American troops directly, as they did in Sangin and Zhari in the fall, the Taliban will attempt to plant more homemade explosives, recruit a new cadre of suicide bombers and assassinate Afghan government officials — as it did late last week, killing the police chief in Kandahar province. The result, according to an internal military projection, could be a far more violent summer for both Americans and Afghans.
Petraeus and other U.S. commanders say they are hopeful that Afghan civilians will feel confident enough to report Taliban activity to U.S. or Afghan troops. They also are optimistic that improvements in the quality of the Afghan army and of U.S. battlefield intelligence will provide a significant boost to counterinsurgency efforts.