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Ex-Taliban: From death threat to hope

By Nic Robertson, CNN senior international correspondent
  • Some Taliban have surrendered but it seems, not the top political leaders
  • One of them said that just a few months ago he would have killed CNN's correspondent
  • Near Kandahar, a road is now filled with trucks but if it was truly safe the road would be a multi-lane highway
  • The security surge appears to be working but it's future success is not guaranteed

President Obama will talk publicly Thursday about the U.S. performance in Afghanistan. CNN's Nic Robertson visited Herat and Kandahar to see for himself what progress has been made outside the capital.

Kandahar, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Walking into the room with three grinning former Taliban relaxing in on aging corduroy covered sofa was a bit of shock.

It wasn't that I didn't know they'd be there, I did. They'd actually come at my request. What was shocking was it felt like stepping back 10 years.

These seemed like the same hardy-faced, scraggly-bearded men I used to meet here before the 9/11 attacks. Heads swathed in loose fitting silk turbans typical of the Taliban and for that matter much of the south of the country.

They flashed broad grins boasting pearly white teeth. It all seemed incongruous.

Now they were on the government side. A few months ago, they told me, they would have killed me, but now they've bought, for the time being, the government message of reconciliation.

They seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Not top leaders coming in from the cold for political talks but mid level commanders, the type NATO special forces are rolling up around the country these days, responding to the government's offer of 'help'.

Maybe they'd seen the writing on the wall. The next knock on the door was going to be a man dangling on a rope from a helicopter holding a gun in one hand and a one way ticket to jail in the other.

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Whatever got them to the faded, lightless office I may never know for sure but it had jerked me back a decade. It wasn't the only time I was going to have that feeing this trip through Kandahar and Herat.

In the middle of Kandahar, on the main street yards from the heavily guarded governor's palace with its manicured lawns, I felt I might have been driving down the road back in the Taliban days when CNN had an office here.

It's sad to reflect that of the two friends and their two brothers who worked for CNN only one of the four is alive today. Mostly they were killed in tribal or land disputes.

The drive down that main road brought back memories of them, the stores, the dirt, the dust, the people, the down-at-heal feel hadn't changed one bit. It was almost as if it was 2000 again and I was driving to the old office building.

The big difference -- I was now in a huge armed U.S. military vehicle, a Cougar, much favored by soldiers here for its ability to deflect improvised explosive devices. Not invulnerable, but a reassuring cocoon of hardened steel Kevlar and foam padding.

Ten years ago, I could have driven this road without fear of being blown up but not so today. A reflection that much has changed for the worse inside Afghanistan.

For ordinary Afghans, insecurity, instability and lack of development have been the only real constants.

We were in Kandahar to get a handle on the surge.

Is it working? Well let's define what working is. If it's improved security with the promise of better days ahead, then yes. Is it the light at the end of the tunnel? Maybe yes, although the verdict is out on whether the light is an oncoming train or really a bright new dawn. Is success guaranteed, better days for sure? Frankly, far from it.

The surge has brought more troops and more of the right type of people. Not just hard charging combat types but civil affairs officers, intelligence officers and civilians of various hues, government experts, agriculture experts, people who know how to bring goods and services to communities.

Because that is where the real success of the surge will come, according to the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy. When buildings go up, people get services and a better life, and that's when the light in the tunnel turns from train to sunshine.

On the fringes of Kandahar, the sun may be coming out. If the center of the city feels like it's back in the dark days of Taliban rule, then the accumulated wealth of haulage trucks jammed in dirty roadside stops hints that there is progress of a kind.

But if it was safe the highway would be a multi-lane bypass around the city linking the cotton fields of central Asia with the textile factories in Pakistan and beyond.

However, there is one place in Kandahar that most assuredly snaps me out of the stupor of the past.

Ademena looks and feels like part of Dubai, palatial villas safe and secure in a sprawling gated community. Who can afford to live here at way over $1 million a house? Government officials and businessmen, I was told.

By some optimistic measure this may be progress and may herald better days, but as so many of my experiences on this visit have taken me back not forward it seems unrealistic to imagine the people whose lives are lived here are ready to do much more than what they've done for past three decades -- watch, wait, and only come out of the shadows when a winner has been declared.

Which brings me back to three former Taliban, maybe that is a good sign. Never mind the reason, they joining the side of the government. For now at least.