By James Mackenzie and Sardar Razmal
KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Since U.S. forces began stepping up air strikes against the Taliban, Kunduz shopkeeper Najibullah no longer fears another insurgent takeover of the northern Afghan city. But he does fear robbery or kidnap by militia gangs.
With Afghan forces improving and on the offensive, U.S. commanders have more freedom to attack the Taliban and insurgents no longer threaten any major urban centers.
Although Taliban-controlled areas begin within a 10-minute drive of the city, Kunduz - a strategic hub that fell twice in the past two years - is largely calm. But there is a long way to go to build confidence in daily security.
"In the past people were afraid that the Taliban would come but no-one talks about that now," said Najibullah, who like many Afghans, uses only one name.
"Now we have internal problems," he said, leaning over the counter of his shop in the city center and talking softly to avoid being overheard. "There are gunmen that do anything they want. There are people in this city, if they know you have money they'll come to your shop and rob you in broad daylight."
Outside the city, where the Taliban still hold sway, the risk of being caught between helicopter gunships and the insurgents or swept up in a clearing operation means life is also more difficult for villagers on the front line.
Last month, locals say 16 people were killed by U.S. helicopters in a night raid near the villages of Qatl-e Am and Gharow Qushlaq in Chahardara district, an area largely controlled by the Taliban. A U.S. investigation concluded there was no evidence any civilians were killed.
"Since the Americans announced their new strategy and signed the new agreement, the situation has been getting worse," said Atiqullah, a villager who said he was about three kilometers away when the raid took place.
The shift in perceptions on the ground suggests ordinary Afghans are seeing the fresh strategy is hitting the insurgents. But their new fears underline how much more is needed to build trust in the Western-backed government.
"I'm a businessman but I can't go anywhere without a gun," said Jamal Nasir Aymaq, who owns a number of bakeries in the city. "Our businessmen and rich people have already escaped Kunduz and children are not safe."
Kidnapping and robbery are rife and there is little confidence of justice from a government many see as deeply implicated in abuses by rogue militia "commanders" who operate with impunity.
"We all know peace cannot be achieved by force alone, it needs development and the economy," said Kunduz police chief Abdul Hameed Hameedi. "Security is much better than last year but we haven't got what people are expecting yet."
Kunduz Governor Asadullah Omarkhil dismissed talk of any official collusion in kidnapping as "baseless", but while many people fear the Taliban, many also feel they are more honest and efficient than city officials.
"If there were a real government in the center of Kunduz, people wouldn't be going to the Taliban for legal decisions," said Mawlawi Khosh Mohammad Nasratyar, a member of the Kunduz provincial council. "Now, even people from the center of Kunduz go to the Taliban to settle legal cases."
The wariness among many Afghans contrasts with optimism among Western officials, who say the new approach is starting to turn a stalemate with the Taliban around.
"The air strikes have made all the difference," said one Western diplomat in Kabul. "When you go to (the NATO-led Resolute Support mission) headquarters, there's a bit of a buzz about the place that wasn't there before and a feeling they're back on the front foot."
So far in 2017, U.S. forces have dropped three times the quantity of bombs as last year and special forces units have been in regular action with their Afghan counterparts.
Hundreds of Taliban fighters and many senior leaders have been killed, including Mullah Abdul Salam, mastermind of the assault that saw the Taliban flag raised over Kunduz in 2015, the first time the insurgents had taken a major town.
Similar successes have been seen in other towns including Tarin Kot in the central province of Uruzgan, which the Taliban briefly overran last year, or Lashkar Gah in Helmand, which they have also come close to taking.
"Two years ago, there was a fear of Taliban attack on the city every minute and we couldn't come into the office," said Kunduz provincial council secretary Fawzia Jawad Yaftali. "But now everything is different, the shops are open and I'm sitting in my office without any fear," she said.
The campaign has not been without cost however and hanging over it is the fact that the air strikes have inevitably brought more civilian casualties in their wake, even if their numbers are still well below those killed by roadside bombs.
In a briefing this week, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan General John Nicholson said they go to "extraordinary lengths" to avoid civilian casualties and have "a rigorous process" to investigate allegations.
But people from Chahardara react with deep anger to official denials that the raid on Nov. 3-4 killed at least 16 civilians.
"The helicopter started bombing at three in the morning. Afterwards, at about 6 o'clock a lot of people gathered to help and then the helicopter came back. That was the big bomb," said Mohebullah, a village elder.
"Sixteen people were killed and six wounded," he said, showing a handwritten list of names. "They have advanced equipment, they should be sure of who they are attacking. They should target criminals not innocent and helpless people."
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan said reports of at least 10 deaths were "credible". A U.S. investigation found no evidence of any civilian casualties but Capt. Thomas Gresback, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said they would engage in dialogue with anyone who came forward with information.
"Most of the propaganda about civilian casualties comes from the enemy," said Governor Omarkhil, who said only one person was killed in the incident. "In Chahardara, the Taliban made people go to the battle zone and take out dead bodies."
The U.S. military says the Taliban deliberately shelters in houses and schools but the issue, over which former Afghan President Hamid Karzai repeatedly clashed with Washington, causes deep resentment, sapping support for the government.
"The people who were killed were all civilians, they had nothing to do with the government or the Taliban," said Mohebullah. "Everyone lost a family member, everyone is shocked and in grief. The governor is lying."
(Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Alex Richardson)