President Hamid Karzai told Afghans in a volatile southern province Saturday it was their duty to return to their homes and help protect their villages in the Kandahar region where international troops are trying to rout insurgents.
Karzai flew to southern Afghanistan to meet with more than 200 tribal elders and seek their support for his government's effort to extend its influence beyond Kabul. The elders told the visitors that rural areas needed security and economic development even as they acknowledged Kandahar province, birthplace of the Taliban, is proving tough to secure.
The president was rallying citizens of Kandahar, the birthplace of the insurgency, to align themselves with the government and the international community, which are trying to tamp down violence in the area and rush in development aid.
"If you people go back to your villages, this will be the only way to secure them," Karzai said in the restive Arghandab district. "After these Afghan and NATO operations, it is your duty to protect your areas. You know the area very well so you can stop outsiders from coming in."
Karzai said work is under way to improve the supply of electricity to Kandahar, the provincial capital. The first of two 10 megawatt power plants is scheduled to be running by December, providing power to up to 15,000 additional homes. Provincial Gov. Turyalai Wesa, who is planning to host a business exposition later this year to attract commercial ventures, says he intends to use the power to expand government services and create jobs.
"The priority for the people of Arghandab is security, and second is providing job opportunities for the people," said Nazir Jan Masoumi, a 43-year-old from Arghandab district. "We need fruit storage and of course for that we need electricity."
Masoumi complained about the presence of so many security compounds and checkpoints in the Arghandab area.
"They are disrupting the lives of the people," he said.
Karzai, who was accompanied by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and top Afghan security force officials, also encouraged people to educate their children. He pledged to improve the salaries of teachers to coax them to work in villages outside major cities.
And he promised to continue talking with Pakistan to help abolish militant sanctuaries across the border out of the reach of Afghan and NATO forces.
"We hope that Karzai will be able to fulfill all the promises he made today to the people of Arghandab," said Neko Agha, a 48-year-old from the district. "The security in Kandahar city is good and we want the same security in the districts too. If security is better in the districts, it will have a direct effect on the lives of the people. We know that Kandahar is not easy to secure."
NATO says Afghan and international forces are focused on removing the mid- to senior-level Taliban leaders in Kandahar.
More than 21 Taliban leaders have been captured in the last month, arrests NATO hopes will strengthen governance and allow development projects to take hold in the province, the coalition says.
International troops are heavily focused on the dangerous south, but violence continues across the nation.
Four Italian soldiers were killed Saturday in an insurgent attack in western Afghanistan, according to Italian officials. A British aid worker, abducted late last month, was killed Friday by insurgents during a rescue operation in eastern Afghanistan, Britain's foreign minister said Saturday. Also Friday, the provincial governor of Kunduz province, Mohammad Omar, and 19 others were killed in a massive bomb blast inside a packed mosque in northern Afghanistan.
Associated Press Writers Deb Riechmann and Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.