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MOQUR, GHAZNI PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Along a sprawling roadside market, where butchered animals hang next to tiny, wooden stalls filled with auto parts, an Afghan man squats next to his apple cart, hoping to sell enough produce to feed his family.
It's only been in recent months that Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, returned to the Moqur market. For years, the Taliban controlled the Moqur district and much of Ghazni province, forcing schools and businesses to close and imposing strict Islamic law.
The U.S. and Afghan forces here pushed out the Taliban fighters and allowed the market's vendors to return, giving hope of a normal life. But now that U.S. forces are preparing to depart, people here live in fear that the Afghan soldiers who are supposed to take over security will not be up to the task.
"There are still a lot of bad guys in the area," says Abdullah, as a crowd on onlookers nods in agreement.
By June 2014, security in every province in Afghanistan will have been turned over to Afghan forces following 11 years of hard-won battles against the Islamist Taliban in which more than 2,000 Americans have died. As NATO stated in its latest report Thursday, the success of the transition will rest on whether the Afghans can ensure that the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists.
"Developments over the past year show they can," concluded NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Eastern Afghanistan will be the greatest test of that transition. U.S. Marines and Army soldiers succeeded in vanquishing Taliban fighters from the strongholds in the south in campaigns lasting years in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. Rather than reinforce the south, the Taliban attacked to the east, where fighters from militant-infested northwest Pakistan bolstered their forces.
U.S. forces responded last year by shifting troops to the east, intensifying efforts in Ghazni to combat a persistent enemy as a deadline issued by President Obama closes in for U.S. troops to withdraw.
Ghazni is an important thoroughfare for the Taliban and other militant groups in eastern Afghanistan. The country's main route, Highway 1, runs through this market halfway between the country's two largest cities, Kabul and Kandahar. Just off the highway are vast stretches of barren crop fields covered in winter frost and surrounded by snow-topped mountains.
Winter is typically when many Taliban fighters return to Pakistan to rest and re-arm for the spring. But this winter the Taliban remained active, perhaps to test the strength of the Afghan forces that have taken up positions turned over by the U.S. military.
Polish forces were leading the NATO effort in the province. The arrival of U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers kept the Taliban out of the bigger population centers. But some locals say the Taliban is still firmly in control of most districts and just waiting for U.S. forces to leave so they can take on the Afghan forces left behind.
"They didn't bring security, the weather did," says Abdul Kaim, waving a bony finger at the American forces in the market as he explained that the recent snowfall is what stopped the fighting by making it too hard for either side to travel.
Lt. Col. Jeremy Schroeder disagreed and said the region was secured well before winter's arrival.
"I guess that's a good problem," says Schroeder, interpreting the Taliban's willingness to brave the cold months in Afghanistan as a sign the militants are concerned about losing too much ground to NATO and Afghan forces come spring. "It means you are having success."
Under the protection of patrolling coalition troops, Afghans fill the Muqor market that acts as an open-air department store with clothes, produce, food and merchandise. During the summer — when the Taliban controlled the market and much of the province — Abdullah and other merchants were forbidden from doing business in what is the largest roadside bazaar between Kabul and Kandahar.
Not all areas of eastern Afghanistan have such protection, and they can be at the mercy of the Taliban. Some have begun fighting back.
In nearby Andar District, locals rose up against the Taliban and its strictures, according to the Afghan government. Some have taken up arms against the militants and forced them from villages, allowing Taliban-banned schools and shops to reopen.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has said the talk of life without Taliban control is an illusion. Mujahid says that much of Andar and Ghazni remains in Taliban hands.
"People (residents of Ghazni) like to help the mujahedin, they know it is their responsibility," he says. "But even if they can't help, they aren't making real problems for us."
Townspeople in Moqur District are not banking solely on Afghan troops protecting them once U.S. forces go. A group called the Moqur Movement is helping to keep the Taliban out of the market and village, says the U.S. military. The groups in Andar and Moqur are critical to security because they can readily identify outsiders, particularly those who belong to the Taliban.
"They have a certain amount of access (to the local population) and anonymity that Afghan forces do not," Schroeder says.
Schroeder notes, however, that the groups can frighten some locals, such as when they enter homes after dark in search of suspected Taliban.
U.S. forces are trying to bring members of the Moqur Movement into the fold of the Afghan Local Police, a constable force trained and equipped by Special Operations Forces. Several members have already been incorporated into the ranks of the ALP, but the police have issues, too.
People have complained that some in the ALP abuse their newfound authority by extorting bribes at checkpoints.
"They are taking our money and even torturing us," Mullah Shamsullah, an elder in a nearby village says of the Afghan Local Police.
U.S. forces say there are some ALP abusing their authority but that most cases involve men impersonating the police.
In Afghanistan, where rumors are how many rural towns get their information, there is speculation that the uprisings against the Taliban were manufactured by Kabul to spin a positive storyline out of Ghazni.
"At first it appeared it was a Pashtun (the predominant ethnic group in Ghazni) initiative to rise up," says Saeed Parto, an analyst with the Afghanistan Public Policy Research Organization. "Another version is the Afghan government and U.S. forces wanted to see a feel-good story, something to show that Afghanistan is worth saving."