Fears of Taliban backlash as forces rule Kandahar with an iron fist
The corpses, of alleged Taliban insurgents, had been left out in the open as a warning from the police to anyone who might want to join the group. Residents of Kandahar said people were forbidden from moving them for three straight days lest the message be unclear.
Over the past years the police in Kandahar province have gained a fearsome reputation. While the Afghan government and Nato forces have credited them with improving security in what was once an insurgent stronghold, the United Nations has accused them of torture.
Now, as foreign troops withdraw and the West focuses on other parts of the world, there are signs that the war in this part of Afghanistan is about to get even dirtier.
Kandahar is the spiritual heartland of the Taliban and it was here that the movement came to prominence in 1994. After the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, armed opposition to the government and occupation gradually spread through the province until the militants held sway in many districts and were able to carry out regular attacks inside the provincial capital.
The level of conflict has decreased in recent years and an eerie quiet has developed instead, with the city resembling a mini police state where people were often scared to talk to The National, even in private.
The more than 30 corpses left beside the motorway last month were seen in the district of Zheray, where Afghan forces had been conducting a major operation.
Several people said they had heard about the bodies, but no one could clearly state whether or not the men had died in battle or in suspicious circumstances.
One of the bus passengers described how the routine journey from neighbouring Helmand province changed when all the cars on the road started to slow down for no apparent reason. Only then did he notice the bodies dumped on top of each other like a scrap heap.
At first everyone looked, he said. "But believe me, when we got close and were passing them, all the bus passengers turned their faces and hid their eyes with their scarves."
At around the same time as the news from Zheray emerged, Kandahar's chief of police, Gen Abdul Raziq, announced he had ordered his forces to kill members of the Taliban rather than capture them and submit them to the courts. He said this was because the judicial system had proved ineffective and tougher action was needed.
Speculation followed that the central government would remove him from his job or perhaps he would resign, but nothing happened. Instead, the chief of police in the northern province of Baghlan announced that he would follow Mr Raziq's example and also stop taking insurgents prisoner.
According to Kandahar residents, the brief controversy offered only a small glimpse of the harsh measures that are being used here in the name of security. They said Gen Raziq's public threat might be a sign that the police are increasingly confident they can act with impunity.
Abdul Qadeem - a pseudonym - has seven children and works as a money changer. He described a recent incident in which an insurgent attempting to evade capture sought refuge in a local house, only to be found and killed by the police. The police then destroyed the house to punish its owner.
"The police are dealing with us very badly, behaving like gangsters," he said, before complaining that they did not even treat women and the elderly with respect. "Yes, they have brought security but they have taken everything else from us."
Mentored by US forces, Gen Raziq is from the district of Spin Boldak, on Kandahar's frontier with Pakistan. There he built up a reputation as a notorious border police officer and militia commander before being appointed as acting chief of police in May 2011.
In January last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan published a detailed report into the often horrific treatment of prisoners held in Afghan custody throughout the country. Conditions were particularly bad in Kandahar where it "found sufficiently credible and reliable evidence of systematic use of torture" by the police and border authorities.
The most common forms of torture and ill-treatment in Kandahar included "hitting, punching and slapping detainees; beatings with wooden sticks, electric cables, and rubber hose pipes on the soles of the feet, legs, shoulders, back, chest, head and sexual organs; suspension of detainees for prolonged periods; electric shocks and stress positions".
There were also reports of "threats of sexual violence, threats to kill detainees" and "the stretching of detainees' limbs beyond their normal flexibility". Many people were alleged to have disappeared after being taken into police custody.
Attempts to contact the Afghan interior ministry were unsuccessful.
Mr Raziq survived an assassination attempt in August 2012 when a suicide car bombing targeted him in Kandahar City.
In July this year, his guesthouse in Spin Boldak was attacked while he was elsewhere in the province.
A human-rights worker in Kabul told The National that the police's tactics would backfire in the long term, pushing the Taliban to new extremes in a desire for revenge.
However, some members of parliament have spoken out in support of the idea that insurgents should be killed rather than arrested, and not everyone in Kandahar is unhappy with conditions.
Saifuddin Ludin was one of the few residents willing to give his real name.
The 28-year-old political activist said Mr Raziq was acting unconstitutionally and making up his own laws "but it is a fair way to deal with the current situation" and had improved security by 90 per cent.
"In the past it was being done secretly but now it is being announced in the media and done in public."
Updated: September 7, 2014 04:00 AM