KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Well after midnight, police who hadn’t been paid in four months pulled over a vehicle at a checkpoint on a barely lit street. But it wasn’t money they were after. They asked the car’s Western passengers for help getting artificial limbs.
One of the policemen, Mohammed Tahir, a 42-year-old whose right leg was severed by a Russian mine in the 1980s, wanted a more comfortable prosthesis. He hobbled around with a crutch in one hand and a Kalashnikov rifle in the other.
His colleague, 20-year-old, Mohammed Khan, lost his left hand to a boobytrap when he was a child. He also lost two fingers on his right hand, and his gun dangled from a strap around his neck, the muzzle resting in the crook of his maimed arm.
“I can still shoot an RPG,” or rocket-propelled grenade, Khan said proudly.
“Help us. He needs a hand, I need a leg,” Tahir, a veteran of several Afghan conflicts, said in a diffident, subdued tone.
The patrol waved on the car after the travelers assured them they would relate their plight to a foreign medical group that helps Afghanistan’s war victims.
Cruising the streets of Afghanistan’s second-largest city at night offers a window on a culture of tension and suffering, guns and commanders who control their own turf.
Early Saturday morning, there were 11 checkpoints manned by Afghan security forces on the nine-mile stretch of road between the U.S. military base at the Kandahar airport and downtown.
Typically, soldiers — some in uniform, many in civilian dress — signal the few cars on the road to stop, flicking a flashlight on and off. Some hang a rope across the road as a crude barrier. They peer in the windows of vehicles, sometimes search passengers and occasionally invite them to share tea on the side of the road.
The city has been relatively quiet since the overthrow of the Taliban late last year in a U.S.-led war. But local officials believe Kandahar’s role as a former stronghold of the Islamic militia makes it vulnerable to unrest by Taliban or al-Qaida remnants.
Security has been especially tight in the city since Wednesday, when an assailant shot an American soldier in the face on a crowded street. The soldier was expected to recover.
The week before, unidentified assailants fired a rocket at the office of Kandahar’s governor, Gul Agha, where U.S. Special Forces troops are garrisoned. The rocket missed and there were no injuries.
Elite U.S. soldiers still patrol Kandahar, but witnesses say they are traveling more often in convoys of three or four vehicles. Previously, single cars carrying Special Forces members were often seen.
Afghan soldiers, more familiar with the area, are now accompanying the Special Forces on all their patrols, said Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for the local government.
Early Saturday, a police car with a flashing red light on the roof was parked in the middle of the road near the governor’s office. The driver was changing a flat tire.
The police and soldiers who patrol the main roads at night work for commanders loyal to the governor, many of whom staked their claims during the early, chaotic days after the Taliban departed.
The chief of the area patrolled by disabled Tahir and Khan got his post by seizing the district’s police station when anti-Taliban Afghan fighters first entered the city.
The governor rewarded the commander, Lalai, by allowing him to retain control of the station, a two-story building with strings of flickering, colored lights on the roof.
Six Afghan police riding two to a motorcycle stopped a vehicle early Saturday along the airport road. Their only question: “Whose group are you with?” — referring to the units controlled by Kandahar’s many commanders. They waved the vehicle ahead after the driver told the officer, “We’re not with any group.”
Most police and soldiers have not been paid, receiving only food for their work. Mohammed Aga, commander of a checkpoint at a bridge near the airport, said his 30 men have no car and cannot chase vehicles that bypass their post and veer into the surrounding desert.
But what they lack in transportation, they make up in weapons. Soldiers manning checkpoints all around Kandahar say that if cars don’t stop, they have orders to open fire.