KANDAHAR: More than a decade ago, the Taliban rose to power by imposing law and order in southern Afghanistan. Now, the new police chief for the province where it all began wants to use the same strategy to neutralise and eventually defeat the resurgent Islamist group.

“The only problem is this: there is no law and order,” said Kandahar police chief General Asmatullah Alizai, appointed last month.

“First of all, we must establish our law. The Taliban are very few, so if there is law and order in Afghanistan, there will be no support for them.”

Kandahar, the city and province where Mullah Mohammad Omar conceived the Taliban in the early 1990s -- his sprawling compound now a US base -- has seen some of the worst fighting in the bloodiest year since the hardline Islamist movement was ousted from power in 2001.

But after being swiftly toppled by a US-led coalition, the Taliban have staged a strong comeback over the past year that has surprised Nato and the United States.

“I think we have all been surprised by the intensity of the violence this year,” US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said on a visit to Kabul.

“It has a number of factors: part of it is drug money linking up with the insurgency. Part of it these people have the ability to operate in and out of Pakistan,” he added.

Over 3,700 people have died this year, about 1,000 of them civilians, mostly in the south, especially Kandahar.

Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand province are the main growing lands of opium poppy, the raw ingredient for heroin, expected to hit record yields this year worth $3 billion.

Some of this money goes to the Taliban and other militant or criminal groups to fuel instability and prevent President Hamid Karzai's government widening its rule beyond the cities.

The shops and bazaars of Kandahar, Afghanistan's main city after the capital, are deceptively overflowing. But businessmen say virtually nothing is selling because of the rising violence.

And almost every foreign or local aid group has pulled out entirely or ceased operations, compounding frustration at the lack of development and reconstruction in one of the world's poorest countries, local officials say.

The provincial head of the women's affairs department, Rona Trena, estimates 80 per cent of development and reconstruction has been halted or slowed to a snail's pace by the fighting:

“This is frustrating. We face many problems. We cannot work,” she says.

Police chief Alizai is moving to build a professional, well-equipped police force and to stamp out the graft rampant in a organisation where an ordinary constable earns as little as 700 Afghanis ($14) a month and hasn't even been paid for half a year.By contrast, a Taliban fighter earns more than half a police general's pay of $600 a month.

“First, we should have a strong police -- then the locals will be with us and we can stop anything,” Alizai said. “The Taliban will see our work and join us. These are not problems that can be solved in one day.”

The Taliban has also set up its own courts in some areas, further strengthening its role as a de facto administration.

But those trying to win change can pay a heavy price. The Taliban, other militants and criminals target high ranking officials, police and soldiers, copying tactics from Iraq.

Several have been killed-- blown up or shot. Early this year, 13 people died when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the Kandahar police compound.

Alizai, originally from the desert province of Helmand west of here, says he is not afraid, although he deftly sidesteps questions about his personal security arrangements.

“When I serve my people, this is not danger -- I am proud of it,” said the 49-year-old father of 10.—Reuters

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