KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) - Kandahar's police substation No. 16 is a small green metal building plopped on a patch of dirt.
While still primitive, U.S. Army Lt. Col. John Voorhees boasted of its progress when he visited one rainy day last week as a ragtag group of Afghan policemen - some still in summer uniforms - were lined up.
Outside the building, there are damp tents furnished with bunk beds. A tarp hung over an outdoor eating area. There was a latrine and even a pingpong table made of scrap lumber.
"I think we've moved from an F to a C or C-plus," said Voorhees, commander of the 504th Military Police Battalion, which is deployed in Afghanistan's largest city in the south. "They have hot showers, water, heated tents."
The substation is one of 16 that ring Kandahar to help keep the Taliban from getting into the city to launch attacks.
Afghan policemen and American MPs live together at all of them, jointly protecting their piece of the city of 800,000. Ten substations are housed in buildings. Two are under construction. Four still operate in tents or temporary quarters.
With hundreds more policemen on the streets, fewer insurgents are slipping into the city.
There are 1,600 Afghan policemen in Kandahar. That's 800 more than last year and the total is slated to rise to 2,100 by summer. They are partnered with 850 U.S. military policemen - up from 170 MPs last summer.
The city is safer than it was, but it's far from safe.
On Feb. 4, a suicide car bomber struck outside the home of Kandahar Police Chief Khan Mohammad Mujahid, who was inside but unhurt. It was the second attempt on his life in three days. On Jan. 29, the deputy governor of Kandahar province, Abdul Latif Ashna, was killed when a suicide bomber on motorcycle rammed his car. His death is now represented by a red dot on a map hanging at an MP compound in the city.
Recently, Taliban insurgents have been intimidating residents in southeastern Kandahar. The Taliban also has posted threatening letters in the north end of town.
Residents say security has improved. Three police substation commanders have been fired for corruption or incompetence since September.
"It's true that the government and NATO forces are trying to block all possible routes so the Taliban can't gain access in or out of the area," said Ghulab Shah, a 42-year-old farmer. "This time, they seem more focused. We're not just hearing words. They used to just operate and then desert us, leaving us in the hands of God."
But no one can predict what will happen if fighting picks up as the weather warms.
"Right now, it's impossible to know if these plans will work out or whether the Taliban will come back stronger than before," Shah said. "A lot of Taliban have been killed and captured. Let spring come, and then we will all know the truth."
Kandahar province is the birthplace of the Taliban insurgency.
Last year, militants roamed freely. They clustered outside the city, making bombs and plotting attacks from places like Zhari, Panjwai and Arghandab districts. The Taliban had a psychological hold on residents, who had little faith in the government's ability to protect them.
Things started to change when 30,000 U.S. reinforcements finished arriving in Afghanistan last summer and launched offensives to forced insurgents from their strongholds throughout the province.
Fazal Ahmad Shirzad, chief of security for Kandahar, said clearing the remote areas, orchards and woods greatly improved security in the city.
"The enemy is weak," he said in his office. "They can't hide themselves anywhere."
With spring just weeks away, Voorhees and his Afghan police partners are working hard to further tighten security, fix up the substations and motivate and professionalize the police force.
Are the Afghan policemen improving?
Staff Sgt. Eric McFarland of Wheeling, W.Va., pauses and glances around Substation No. 5, which resembles a motel and has a resident black dog named Darkness.
"Coming along," McFarland says. The West Virginia state trooper adds that the Afghans are not yet up to the standards required of the state police, where he works.
He and other MPs cite progress, but say the Afghan police force isn't ready to go it alone.
The slow-moving Afghan bureaucracy isn't helping. Some heavy, gray winter police uniforms are only just now arriving in Kandahar.
"It is very hard, but I am surviving," said Goma Khan, a 23-year-old farmer-turned- policeman who lives at substation No. 16.
Khan joined the Afghan National Police seven months ago in Kandahar because he feared the Taliban would go after his family if he became a policeman in his home province of Kunduz in the north.
"I'd like to continue. I'd like to help my country. But I am far away from my family," he said.
Khan complained that they don't always have enough fuel for the stove that heats the tent.
"Sometimes it's cold," he said. "There are holes in the tent."
Voorhees insisted there was no fuel shortage. He dashed into the tent where the substation commander, Rahmatullah Khakrizwal, told him that the tents were kept warm - until the morning when they wanted everyone to get out of bed anyway.
Khakrizwal, a short man with a mustache who carries a pistol on his belt, works, eats and sleeps at the substation too. He had just finished lunch when Voorhees arrived. A plate of onions and bread still sat on the desk in his office, which doubles as a bedroom.
"That's my bed right there," he said, pointing to a cot with a fuzzy orange blanket.
He graduated from police training courses in the United States and hopes the Afghan officers he commands will get more training too.
"They have training, but not that much," he said. "I want them to be experts. If they are searching a car or a house, they need to know how to collect evidence. They don't have that much experience."
Natalie Caron, a police reform officer in Kandahar for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs, said some young police trainees have been astounded to learn about fingerprinting. "It's like magic to them," Caron said.
At police headquarters in the center of the city, booking procedures are being updated.
"There's a computer in the jail now," said U.S. Army Lt. Jeffrey Shields, 27, of Fairfax, Va., who mentors Afghan police officials.
"They're tracking people," he said, moving his fingers to mimic typing.
Sitting on broken furniture in a dim hallway in the basement of police headquarters, the MPs spoke of progress.
"There's not a lot of faith in any institution in Afghanistan," Voorhees said. "It's not pretty. I'm not saying we're winning hearts and minds, but I think the population is seeing their government in action."
After getting updates at the headquarters, Voorhees hopped into his heavily armored convoy and drove off into the city, past rundown houses and shops worn by war.
A rainbow appeared briefly through the mud-smeared window of his vehicle.
"Yeah, I saw it," Voorhees said. "It made this place beautiful for a second."
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