As Kandahar's 61-year-old deputy mayor prostrated himself in prayer at a mosque a few steps from his family home, Taliban assailants pumped five bullets into his body, then made an easy escape along a street that was supposed to have been tightly secured by Afghan police. Yarmal was among the best-known figures to be gunned down in an intensifying wave of assassinations that many Kandaharis see as linked to much-touted American plans to drive the Taliban from the city the movement considers its spiritual home. Now, with NATO seemingly recalibrating its strategy to establish government authority in Kandahar, many here fear that uncertainty over the West's military intentions will plunge them into even greater peril. On a visit to Washington last week in the company of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, spoke of a "slow-rising tide" of security measures in Kandahar province not an outright bid to seize the city that is its capital. In recent weeks, Western military officials in Afghanistan have stopped referring to the Kandahar campaign as an offensive. "What we plan on is mainly an Afghan, politically led process where you have slowly incremental changes of security, which enables governance and development," said Army Col. Wayne Shanks, the chief public affairs officer for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. "So this is not going to be anything that is immediate or quick." Such talk leaves many Kandaharis baffled. Rangina Hamidi, who runs a handicraft business that employs Afghan village women in Kandahar province, said it was difficult for local people to understand why the North Atlantic Treaty Organization began talking publicly months ago about Kandahar being the next big target for Western forces. "Most of the women I work with are illiterate and hardly ever leave their homes they are not involved in public life," Hamidi said. "But even these women are saying, 'If you are going to do an offensive, why are you going to announce it in advance?'" As U.S. officials seek to emphasize the campaign's political goals rather than its military ones, insurgent assassins are systematically targeting precisely the kind of people on whom Western planners are relying to help woo the populace to the side of the Afghan government: tribal elders, municipal employees, security officials, aid workers and others. That includes local leaders such as Yarmal, a highly respected figure who was widely viewed as untainted by the corruption that is so pervasive in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the deputy mayor's killing. "If you were to map the assassinations, track them, they would tell you what the insurgents think about who is in power, who's an influencer, and how to get rid of them quickly," said Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghanistan researcher for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "In the last three months, you've seen the rate of assassinations go from basically one or two a week to one or two a day that's really serious." The unrelenting violence is also eroding what little public confidence existed in the Afghan national police, who are a linchpin of NATO's plans for long-term security in Kandahar. The city's mayor, who himself receives a constant stream of death threats, said the killings could not take place without at least some degree of police complicity. "There are criminals among the police not all, but a big group who are accountable to warlords and drug dealers," Mayor Ghulam Haider Hamidi said. "They can be bought for money." Samiullah Yarmal, the 31-year-old son of the assassinated deputy mayor, said few people trust the police. He cited the heavy security in the area where his father was slain: 150 yards from the governor's office, with a security checkpoint every 50 or 100 feet, and police officers on every corner. "And people come into a place like this with guns and kill someone, and no one saw anything, no one knows who they are or where they've gone?" he said. Longtime local officials describe the campaign of assassinations as a deliberate show of strength by Taliban fighters, who are ensconcing themselves in the city as NATO forces apply pressure in outlying districts. "Whoever says anything against the Taliban, they threaten them or kill them," said Haji Agha Lalai, a member of Kandahar's provincial council who has sometimes served as an intermediary between the government and the insurgents. Western military officials say their strategy relies to a large extent on choking off insurgents' access to the city, rather than risking a bloodbath by confronting the Taliban inside Kandahar, a sprawling, densely populated place of nearly 1 million people. But Lalai and others said that with months of notice about NATO's intentions, the insurgents have already had plenty of time to get fighters and weapons into place in urban districts. And because Taliban fighters are so difficult to distinguish from ordinary locals, he said, they continue to arrive daily, unimpeded. "There are checkpoints and so forth outside the city, so they can't come in big numbers, but they can come in by car or motorbike, by many separate ways," Lalai said. Western officials point out that assassinations have been a feature of Kandahar's political landscape for years. Residents concur, but say that what used to be an infrequent phenomenon has now become an everyday occurrence. "Each time, it reminds me of what happened to my wife," said Haji Abdul Salam, the widower of Malalai Kakar, who was a police officer in charge of dealing with crimes against women. She was shot dead in September 2008. Misgivings in Kandahar are heightened by the fact that NATO troops are finding it extremely difficult to establish security and governance in Marja, a farming town in neighboring Helmand province that was the scene of a major Marine-led offensive three months ago. Villagers there say that despite the heavy presence of Western and Afghan troops, Taliban fighters are filtering back into town, intimidation is rife, and government services have been slow to take hold. The lack of clear-cut success in Marja may be contributing to a notable toning down of the Western rhetoric regarding Kandahar. Shanks, the public affairs officer, acknowledged that the envisioned operation in Kandahar would be "exponentially more complex" than the one in Marja. That makes many Kandaharis even more doubtful that Western troops can protect them from Taliban retribution. "Even if Americans come to Kandahar 10 times over," said Hamidi, the mayor, "they cannot stand in front of every home." (The Los Angeles Times)