New Attacks Foment Fear in Afghanistan

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 13, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, April 12 -- A spate of terrorist attacks, from the murders of five medical workers in Badghis province in the north to bombings in the opium poppy region of Helmand in the south, is expanding a climate of insecurity across Afghanistan as NATO forces prepare to take over most military duties from the U.S.-led coalition.

Afghan officials vaguely blame the attacks on "enemies of Afghanistan" and denounce neighboring Pakistan for harboring Islamic insurgents bent on destroying this fragile new democracy. The reinvigorated Taliban militia, for its part, has vowed to wage a bloody spring and summer offensive against the Afghan state.

But a variety of foreign analysts and military officials here offer a different explanation: a vast canvas of weakly governed and unprotected territory in which drug traffickers, feuding tribesmen and opportunistic criminals -- as well as Taliban gunmen on motorbikes and mysterious suicide bombers -- operate with increasing ease, despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in the country.

"There are feudal fights, factional rivalries, people settling old scores, people opposed to anti-drug operations," said Cmdr. Susan Eagles, spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force here. "There is no coordinated strategy between incidents," she added. "When there are areas of ungoverned space, where the rule of law is not in operation, it becomes a breeding ground for insurgent action."

In addition to the growing number of suicide bombings, a tactic once unknown in Afghanistan, Western officials cite persistent reports of a burgeoning collusion in Helmand and Kandahar provinces between drug traffickers and forces loyal to the Taliban, which banned opium poppies as un-Islamic when it ruled most of the country five years ago.

In recent weeks, violence has been concentrated there, including a bold armed assault March 29 on a U.S. and Canadian military base, coinciding with the start of an international program to forcibly eradicate opium poppy fields.

Over the next several months, more than 6,000 troops from Britain and other NATO countries are slated to take over security in the southern region, and analysts are predicting a bloody debut.

"Transitions are a time of testing, and both sides will have something to prove -- the NATO forces to show they are tough, their opponents to show they won't run," said Joanna Nathan, who heads the Kabul office of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, a nonprofit advocacy and research group. "There will be more troops and more targets. It will be a pretty messy summer."

Canada, Britain, Italy and the Netherlands have made strong commitments to a new, more muscular Afghan mission under the NATO umbrella. Their decisions followed heated domestic debates that were influenced by such incidents as the near-fatal ax bludgeoning of a Canadian soldier by a teenage boy during a village meeting in Kandahar.

In an interview Tuesday, Eagles said NATO forces were eager to shift from their current mission of policing cities and mostly quiet rural areas in the north to combating well-armed fanatics and drug runners in the south. The transition from U.S. leadership to NATO military control is on track to occur by July.

"We are extremely well prepared," she said, describing plans to flood the sparsely patrolled poppy and Taliban region with up to 17,000 troops, in coordination with Afghan government plans to bring in stronger local and regional officials. "We are not going to be deterred or lose heart. We are going to close down those ungoverned spaces so the Afghans can bring in governance, development and the rule of law."

There are signs the renewed Taliban insurgency could be particularly difficult to dislodge. U.S. military officials here, who often describe Taliban terrorist attacks as acts of desperation, acknowledged concern this week over the growing use of Iraq-style suicide bombings, which have killed several dozen people this year.

"They are doing it because it is successful; they have shifted their tactics to something successful," Col. James Yonts, the U.S. military spokesman here, said Monday. He described the recent suicide bombings -- one of which nearly killed the leader of Afghanistan's national assembly as he drove through the capital last month -- as "very hard to combat."

On Saturday a suicide bomber struck outside a U.S. military compound in Herat province in the west, which by Afghan standards has been largely secure.

None of the bombers has been identified. Speculation as to their identities include al-Qaeda foreigners, Pakistani agents and Afghan Taliban fanatics who have seized on a new tactic.

Conventional attacks continue unabated as well. Last Sunday, unidentified gunmen fired on a clinic in Badghis province, killing five Health Ministry workers, and then set the facility alight. On Tuesday, seven children were killed by a rocket that struck a crowded schoolyard in the town of Asadabad near the border with Pakistan.

The revived Taliban insurgency does not appear to have established a political foothold in Afghan society. But it has burned more than 200 schools and forced numerous foreign aid groups to retreat from much of the south and southeast. In the tribal areas just across the Pakistan border, moreover, Taliban adherents have begun carving out pockets of parallel rule, settling local disputes and beheading suspected informants.

Until the Afghan government begins to establish a solid official presence across the country, including in security, justice and social services, several analysts here said, no number of foreign troops will be able to quash the terrorist and criminal violence.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company