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Taliban terror

April 17, 2012

Afghanistan is reeling from a spate of Taliban attacks against Western targets. Locals fear that the Taliban will once again gain control of the country once international forces leave.

Kabul street
Image: DW

Bouncing down a muddy road in the Sanitarium, a middle-class neighborhood near the National Museum here, my driver pointed to his shoulder, lumpy from seven bullet wounds sustained during the Taliban's reign of terror.

"We are all scared s***less," he said, "for the Americans to leave."

The driver spoke good English and said had worked as an interpreter for US government-sponsored projects in Afghanistan. Laid off when funding for the program decreased, he said he is now forced to drive a taxi "in order to feed my family." (The drive across the city netted him less than $1 in local currency).

That situation could repeat itself for thousands of Afghan workers after the American withdrawal from the war-ravaged country, scheduled to take place in 2014.

A series of sophisticated coordinated attacks that struck the Afghan capital and outlying provinces on Sunday have exacerbated those fears, bringing concerns about the country's weak security system to a boiling point.

In the past few weeks, Afghanistan and the United States have taken several policy measures to ensure that the war-ravaged country is on its way to political sovereignty.

Civilians have been worried that the measures were too much, too soon - fears that were all but confirmed by the weekend launch of what many in Kabul are calling the beginning of the Taliban's spring offensive.

With insurgents escalating their attacks, they fear an increase in retaliation against those viewed as sympathetic toward the coalition.

A NATO soldier runs to the scene of an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan
The weekend attacks have plunged the country into further uncertaintyImage: Reuters

"I think for most Afghans working for the international community the future casts a long and frightening shadow," said Stuart Gordon, an Afghanistan researcher at the London-based think tank Chatham House. "Traditionally in times of conflict and uncertainty Afghans have sought to make sure that they side with the winning party. This should frighten the international community."

Military meltdown

Tensions have running especially high on the streets of Kabul following a string of American military disasters. Its boiling point - which has triggered an onslaught of policy changes by the Afghan government, designed to slowly shift more power to its own armed forces in a bid for eventual sovereignty - was the alleged March killing spree by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales that left 17 women and children dead in Kandahar province.

Earlier this month, both countries took steps toward giving the Afghans full control over their own security.

Officials from the US and Afghanistan signed a memorandum putting the Afghan military in charge of 'night raids,' the controversial surprise after-hours inspections of Afghan homes and compounds previously carried out by the Americans. The raids are deeply unpopular among Afghan civilians.

Last month, both countries agreed to let the Afghans have control of all political detainees. Gen. John Allen, commander of NATO forces there, signed the raids pact with Afghanistan's Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. He called it "a landmark day” for the war-ravaged country.

"This means that Afghan security forces operating under Afghan law will now be responsible for capturing and detaining the terrorists who try to kill and wound the innocent people of Afghanistan every day," he said, "and Afghan judges will prosecute and try these terrorists in accordance with the rule of law."

"The trajectory of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan has gone through its ups and downs over the last 10 years, but has been somewhat under [more] stress over the last two, three years," Omar Samad, a former advisor to Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and previously the country's Ambassador to France and Canada, told DW. "And recent incidents obviously have rattled this relationship and raised some fundamental questions over where it's heading and how it can be put back on a track that works for both sides."

Skyrocketing debt and an impatient American public demand the withdrawal. Even in the wake of Sunday's attacks, there has been no official talk of postponing it.

"In the last two months, a, steady pattern has added fuel to the fire - from the Koran burning to the killings to the marines' urination on Taliban bodies," said Samad. "It's put the Afghan-American relationship under a lot of tension. What I'm seeing is the president candidly saying, 'we need to get out of Afghanistan.'"

But there are also growing concerns on the other side - not just among Afghan policymakers, but on Kabul's dusty streets.

Birds on a street in Kabul
Locals are trying to get on with their daily livesImage: DW

"Karzai has asked us to abandon all these villages, the Taliban has suspended talks," a former senior US military official who served in Afghanistan told DW. "The problem with all of this is it's pulled the curtain back on the fact that this was all shaky here."

Civil conflict

The biggest worry is the possibility of a breakdown in security that could lead to both an increase in terrorist activity and a civil conflict between the Taliban and their opponents.

The safety of Afghan civilians in a post-America landscape is also of concern. Hundreds, like my driver, have been working for the Americans as interpreters and in other low-ranking jobs crucial to the Western operation here.

They are worried not just about decreases in salary and changes in lifestyle, but about post-withdrawal retaliation from an opposition whose antagonism toward the US grows steadily with every military misstep.

For years, NATO officials have said that the post-withdrawal Afghan forces would number 352,000 soldiers.

But last month, at a graduation ceremony in Kabul, Karzai said Western officials had pledged to pay $4.1 billion (3.1 billion euros) annually to sponsor the Afghan military from 2014 to 2024.

Increasing concerns about future stability, that figure will only support a lower-than-projected total of 230,000 men.

Earning wages far higher than most of their fellow Afghans, those who work for the US Embassy, NATO and other organizations have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle which, for most, is unlikely to be replicated. Most houses in Kabul are already guarded by heavy metal gates, barbed wire and, for the wealthier, guards with rifles. Foreign compounds are marked by blast-proof walls.

A car driving past a compound in Kabul
Despite their misgivings about occupying forces, Afghans are concerned about post-withdrawal consequencesImage: DW

Drawn-out process

Karzai, impatient with the US troop presence in Afghan villages and spurred by events of the past five months, has favored a full handover by NATO as early as 2013.

"I think Karzai is playing to his base on one side, and is frustrated on the other," said another former senior American official in Afghanistan. "He's been in the job since 2002 and has at least two more years to go. I think the stresses and strains he feels are starting to get to him."

Furthermore, meeting with the families of the villagers allegedly murdered by Bales "puts a lot of personal pressure and angst at Karzai's doorstep. He's genuinely frustrated and tired, and he has to show his outrage."

Many in the US see the incident as a one-off. "If you run back 10 years in Iraq or Afghanistan, there are zero incidents of an individual soldier doing something like this," the former official told DW. "Units did heinous things in both theaters [of war], but there's never been a case were an individual has gone berserk and gone off and killed a number of people. It's rather distinctive to me; I don't think it pertains to greater breakdown in relations."

But random or not, the incident will have long-lasting ramifications in Kabul, where a beleaguered population is now struggling to decide whether an American withdrawal would be more dangerous than its occupation.

Here, the tension begins with its leader and trickles to the streets. On a recent day, sidewalks were emptier and checkpoints rigorous. Cars loaded with rifle-toting Afghan soldiers streaked by. Many international employees working in the capitol had been on lockdown after an increase in threats against foreigners.

As I waited outside a market favored by Westerners from nearby embassy row, two Afghan men pulled up in a car and screamed “f*** you!"

The sentiment was echoed later that night by a US army official, who stood watching troops load into giant bulletproof tanks outside the highly-fortified American compound in central Kabul. "It's going to be a long, rough summer," he said.

Author: Karen Leigh, Kabul
Editor: Rob Mudge