Ghazni, Oct. 17: Two Toyota pick-up vans with wheels kicking up dust swing in through the gates and even before the drivers have stopped, Asadullah Khalid's rifle-wielding Pashtun personal security guards have jumped out and are walking towards the mansion.
The mansion is in the middle of this historic but decrepit town by the Kabul-Kandahar road. Khalid turns around in the verandah, looks at his men and gives a slight nod. Get out of sight for now, he has just told them.
Fourteen centuries after the marauding armies of Mahmud, Sultan of Ghazni, crossed the Hindukush to mount successive raids on Indian kingdoms, the man who runs this province today is a winsome ruler who makes friends and influences people with ease.
One of his predecessors is among the most reviled of invaders in Hindu historiography and his name is still invoked by the Hindutva brigade to stoke passions: in the 12th Century, about 200 years after Mahmud of Ghazni, Mohammed Ghauri had taken a defeated Prithviraj Chauhan captive.
Centuries down, Asadullah Khalid, esquire, is Ghauri's successor as governor of Ghazni in America's Afghanistan.
Ghazni province in Afghanistan's Pushtu heartland is where the Taliban ruled with such firmness that three years after the fall of Kabul, American and international forces have had to do a course correction.
They now distinguish between 'good Taliban' and 'bad Taliban' and rely on a mix of development activity and an emerging leadership represented by such figures as Khalid.
He is a dapper, handsome man of 37, who carries his six-foot frame languidly, the grace of an easy gait enhanced by the pinstriped black silk suit.
This morning he has dispensed with the tie and has settled for a maroon polo-neck undershirt. His hands are always inside the hip pockets. The face is smiling and the eyes are interested.
He has lunch served at the long table in the guest wing of the mansion. There is freshly baked but ubiquitous Afghan nan, Kabuli biryani made with saffron and dressed with almonds and raisins, succulent kebabs, a leg of lamb in a light spicy gravy, and phirni for dessert. Khalid is talking of a recent trip to the United States.
Early one morning, he says, he was woken up in an airport to take a connecting flight to Washington. He got up groggily, breezed through security, boarded his flight and fell asleep again. Two hours later, when he awoke, he was told he was in South Carolina, he had taken the wrong plane.
Seated next to Khalid at lunch is a lady from the US embassy in Kabul and she is from South Carolina. She laughs at the story. Khalid connects easily and wins an invitation for a longer stay in her hometown.
Khalid's Ghazni in the Pushtu heartland is a battlefield of history where war upon war has reduced the town of mud-walled houses to a ruin. The signs of revival in the two years since he took over as governor are feeble but unmistakable.
The public health directorate's Civil Hospital ' the only one in Ghazni province ' is running again with aid and assistance from the US Army's Provincial Reconstruction Team that is camped in the dusty desert just outside of town. Its commander, Colonel Timoney, and Khalid meet like they have been partners for long.
'The Americans need to stay here. I hope they will not go away in a hurry. We need America's help here now. And one day if they go, they should not forget Afghanistan. The elections were great,' says Khalid. 'We registered 75,000 voters in the province.'
But neither the presence of multiple security forces nor the visible reconstruction activity ' the Kabul-Kandahar road is being relaid ' is enough yet to guarantee a modicum of security. Newly-raised Afghan National Army units control checkpoints. The 14th Brigade of the Afghan Militia Forces is camped in Mahmud of Ghazni's old fort. Nato's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) armoured personnel carriers zip up and down the highway by which stands the Sultan of Ghazni's austere tomb. And US army contingents try to hunt down the hardcore Taliban. Americans and foreigners need personal security escort even on short visits through the town.
What is happening, too, is a not-so-subtle change in the outlook of the political authorities. Khalid, a political science student, dropped out midway through his studies to join the Northern Alliance forces under the late Ahmed Shah Masood and rose to become a brigade commander. He explains now that the hunt for the Taliban is ceasing to be indiscriminate.
'There is good Taliban and there is bad Taliban. Not all people in the Taliban are the same. I would say there are three types ' the first kind is those who work with us, like Mullah Salam Rocketi, who was a Taliban corps commander, then there is a kind who are not the Taliban but went along with them and third kind has very close relations with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the Pakistani extreme religious outfits who are around but not so active in Ghazni.'
But Khalid is quick at being politically correct. He says the Pakistan government is working to weed out the terrorist elements.
Just today, Khalid has visited an old gurdwara and met Ghazni's few remaining Sikh families in the company of a deputy who is from another end of the political spectrum. In June this year, he worked with the Indian embassy to get two Indian professionals kidnapped by the Taliban freed.
Khalid represents a generation that is looking to take over the reins of administration in Afghanistan. After the election results are out ' and Hamid Karzai is slated to win from here ' Ghazni's dapper new sultan will revel in a newfound authority that comes out of political legitimacy.