Southern Afghanistan's largest city, Kandahar, is slipping back under Taliban control as overstretched U.S. troops focus on clearing insurgents from the countryside — a potentially alarming setback for President Barack Obama's war strategy.
Afghan authorities promise a counteroffensive against the militants in Kandahar — a pledge that appears aimed primarily at boosting public morale after a devastating bombing killed 43 people on Tuesday.
Losing Kandahar, a city of nearly 1 million and the Taliban's former headquarters, would be a huge symbolic blow because it is effectively the capital of the ethnic Pashtun-dominated south, the main battlefield of the Afghan war.
It is difficult to measure the extent of Taliban control, and NATO officials publicly discount the possibility that Kandahar is about to fall to the militants.
Thousands of U.S. and Canadian troops are deployed throughout the province and around the city, which includes a major NATO base. NATO officials say the U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan will enable them to send more troops into Kandahar.
"Because there's one bombing, it doesn't mean the situation is going down the tubes," said Maj. Mario Couture, a spokesman for NATO in Kandahar province.
Nevertheless, many Afghans believe more Taliban forces are operating clandestinely in the city, while the Islamist movement tightens its grip on districts just outside the urban center.
As guerrillas, the Taliban doubtless don't want to capture and run the city. Instead their goal is probably to wield enough influence to block any government efforts to expand services, prevent international relief agencies from operating there, force merchants to pay protection money and undermine the government's image in one of the country's major cities.
"The Taliban are inside the city. They are very active. They can do anything they want," said an Afghan employee of an international aid organization who requested anonymity because he feared reprisals from the militants.
The Taliban's resurgence in Kandahar city, the movement's main power base during the 1990s, has been slow and gradual over the past four years, said an international security official who is familiar with the area.
These days, the Taliban control many of the city's streets at night, the official said. Residents who spoke to The Associated Press also said militants were active at night, though they did not describe them as being in control.
The security official also pointed to a number of attacks, aside from Tuesday's bombing, that indicate the Taliban want to take over the city. One was last year's brazen bomb and rocket attack on a major prison that freed hundreds of militants and other prisoners.
The militants have targeted tribal elders in surrounding districts, and have a notable presence in the city's north, south and west, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
A chilling indicator of the militant presence are fliers posted in the city.
Haji Tooryalai, a 45-year-old Kandahar resident, said he'd seen some of the so-called shabnamas, or "night letters," ahead of the Aug. 20 elections warning people not to vote. No voting figures have been released from Kandahar but turnout appears to have been low.
"Poor men, rich men — everyone is worried about their security," Tooryalai said. "A few months ago, business was good, but now we are just sitting in our shops and there are just not that many customers."
Tuesday's explosion was especially unnerving.
It struck near a Japanese construction company involved in reconstruction efforts. The Taliban denied responsibility, as they typically do when attacks kill many civilians.
Since the blast, people talk of little else.
A radio announcement asking for blood donations for the wounded spurred a huge response. Early Thursday, about 200 men gathered to sacrifice seven cows and pray for the victims.
Farid Ahmad, a real estate worker who appeared to be in his 50s, said people feel hopeless.
"Everybody can't afford security guards, and if you are hiring security guards it means you are an important person and that will make you a target," Ahmad said.
Kandahar province Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said authorities planned to review the security of the city as part of their investigation of the attack, a report likely to be finished in the next three or four days.
Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, the Afghan National Army commander in Kandahar, said security forces were planning to launch an operation in the city.
He would not give a date for the crackdown or detail its size and scope, but said it would be "soon" and spearheaded by Afghan security forces. NATO forces will be offering backup, but in districts surrounding the city, he said.
NATO officials would not comment on any planned operation.
The U.S. is sending additional 21,000 U.S. troops this year to turn the tide against the Taliban, part of Obama's effort to shift the focus of the fight against terrorism away from Iraq and toward the Pakistan-Afghanistan region.
The American military effort so far, however, has focused primarily on the countryside. U.S. military officials have not explained their strategy publicly but it was believed they wanted to cut Taliban supply lines, interrupt poppy production and attack insurgent units in areas unlikely to produce significant civilian casualties. The Taliban have also set up Islamic courts in some rural communities.
U.S. Marines have launched operations in nearby Helmand province to wrest control of the Helmand River valley and the Now Zad district from Taliban fighters.
But some officials believe securing Kandahar and the surrounding areas is more important because of the large civilian populations and the city's role as the political and economic center of the south.
They would like to see more of the extra troops in Kandahar and not Helmand.
NATO spokesman Capt. Glen Parent, however, noted that over the past month 4,000 more U.S. troops were deployed to both Kandahar and Zabul provinces, including vast stretches around the city.
About 2,000 Canadian troops are based in and around Kandahar, said Couture, the other NATO spokesman.
He said it's been difficult for the Canadians to deal with the city because they lacked enough troops and were busy battling the militants in nearby Zhari and Panjwai districts.
"With the massive arrival of the Americans, that allows us to focus on Kandahar and surrounding areas of the city," he said.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Kathy Gannon in New York contributed to this report.