By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 30, 2006
QALAT, Afghanistan, June 29 -- It was high noon when the car exploded Wednesday, right in the middle of the highway through town. The bomb inside was so powerful that it scattered shreds of hot metal for 200 yards and shattered windows in a new schoolhouse surrounded by high walls.
All that remained of the driver were two black stumps of arm and calf, strewn on a heap of construction dirt near the charred remains of his vehicle. Another man, who had been walking by and sipping on a yogurt drink, was blasted into a culvert, instantly dead.
Working quickly, U.S. troops cleared the area of unexploded bomb parts, hauled away the wreckage, paid bystanders to sweep debris off the road, interviewed witnesses and bagged up car parts to examine. Within three hours, the highway was clear, and dozens of waiting trucks and buses were allowed to resume their journeys.
"The sky hasn't fallen. We should not overreact," Lt. Col. Frank Sturek, the U.S. military commander in Qalat, told Afghan army and police officials at an emergency meeting Thursday. He called the bomb a "failure," noting that it did not damage a passing U.S. military convoy and did not reach its apparent target of a U.S. or Afghan government facility.
Nevertheless, the first suicide bombing in Qalat was a dramatic sign that the Taliban, ousted from national power by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is far from defeated here in Zabol province. The region has been virtually paralyzed by insurgent attacks and threats despite intensive military operations and U.S. and Afghan efforts to make it a showcase for development projects.
Qalat, the provincial capital, is a major stop on the U.S.-rebuilt north-south highway and a strategic spot in the campaign against the Taliban. It boasts a U.S. military base and an Afghan army base, and the U.S. military runs a center here that offers free classes in computer skills, carpentry, welding, nursing and other fields.
Also in Qalat, the United States, Japan and the United Arab Emirates have financed a new teaching hospital, new schools, a government compound now under construction, and radio and TV towers. There are plans for a new national bank, a women's bathhouse and a tearoom on a scenic hilltop where Alexander the Great's fortress once stood.
But the Taliban is never far away, and everyone in Qalat feels the intimidating, shadowy presence. At the U.S. military compound, students in the all-male nursing class Thursday said their female classmates had stopped attending after their families received threatening letters. The welding teacher said that he had not received any direct threats but that someone had spread warnings that no one should teach there.
"They distributed fliers in the villages saying that going to nursing school can cost you your life. They said that any family who sent a female to the school would be severely punished," said Abdul Khaliq, 18, a nursing student. "Of course we are scared. Our hearts beat fast every night, but we have to come and learn. This is our future."
At the scene of the suicide bombing Wednesday, witnesses and residents said they feared the insurgent threat was worsening despite the heavy presence of foreign troops. One taxi driver, whose car was knocked into a ditch by the blast, said he escaped serious injury only because he made a point of keeping far behind any U.S. convoy. Another driver said the Taliban had captured two of his friends this week and demanded $15,000 to spare their lives.
In the main bazaar Thursday, several shopkeepers said that while they felt safe inside the small city, which is heavily patrolled by U.S. forces, many villages were constantly under Taliban threat. Policemen said they were poorly equipped, rarely paid and far too few to patrol effectively.
"We receive intelligence, but we do not react to it. The Taliban are always ahead of us," Maj. Abdul Mateen, a police official, said at the emergency meeting. "They are on an offensive, and we are on the defensive. It should be the other way around. We have had donkey bombs, and now vehicle bombs, and we hear there are going to be motorcycle bombs. We should go out there and stop them."
The gathered officials held a lengthy discussion on the best way to control suspicious traffic, such as searching each vehicle, blocking side roads and forbidding people to drive cars they cannot prove they own. The police chief, Noor Mohammed, suggested sending troops to search certain villages where Taliban squads were known to manufacture bombs, but Sturek said he had been there four times "and found absolutely nothing."
At a separate briefing at the U.S. base in Qalat, Sturek demonstrated intimate familiarity with Zabol's Taliban problem, pinpointing specific areas where insurgent groups were based and explaining the complex relations between local Taliban leaders and various tribes.
He painted a mixed picture of the threat, saying that there were no more than 300 Taliban guerrillas in the province and that his troops were working effectively with Afghan security forces to root them out, win tribal support and establish a permanent government presence. He complained bitterly that the United Nations and foreign aid agencies had withdrawn from the region, where their help was desperately needed.
"If we just go in like throwing a rock in the water, the Taliban will go around it. What we need to do is establish a lasting presence," Sturek said. "We have to focus on the problem areas, to deny the insurgents access, to build roads and clinics and barracks and district buildings, to get the government message out."
Sturek and others in the U.S. military acknowledged that violence in Zabol has increased recently, with incidents like the suicide bombing and a June 5 assault by about 100 Taliban fighters on a U.S. firebase, in which 30 Taliban fighters were killed but no U.S. forces died. One soldier described being in a recent convoy that narrowly missed being blown up by a hidden anti-tank mine.
"It was on Mother's Day, and we were in a dry riverbed that was full of gravel," said Sgt. Richard Arnett. "There was a tiny pressure plate, with a switch no bigger than your fingernail. The battery was covered with rocks. There was no way to see it. The front of our vehicle was totaled, and we were very lucky no one was killed. They definitely know what they're doing."
Most Afghans interviewed in Qalat this week expressed alarm and anger about the Taliban's predations, but a few hinted at nostalgic feelings for the orderly days when the Taliban was in charge. This conservative southern region gave birth to the Taliban movement in the early 1990s.
Many people said they blamed neighboring Pakistan for aiding the insurgents. Most seemed glad the U.S. troops had become active in the province, but some complained that they had failed to bring security and had become magnets for attacks that left Afghans dead.
On Thursday, Sturek and several of his men took a stroll through the main Qalat bazaar, handing out cookies to children and inquiring politely how shopkeepers were faring. Most were cautious, but several warmed up and became expansive, offering detailed complaints about the lack of electricity and roads.
One merchant, sitting in a dark stall surrounded by ax handles and hammers and coils of rope, waited until the soldiers had passed and then shook his head.
"There is no life, no security here," said Mohammed Akram, 45. "When the Taliban ruled here, we could carry large bags of cash all the way to Kandahar and nothing would happen. I even left my motorcycle outside the shop and it was still there three days later. Now, it would be gone in a moment. We have seen no results from the Americans. The killing still goes on, and no one is safe."