KABUL — At an intersection of a deadly road, Afghan security forces stand watch. They peek into vehicles, stare suspiciously at anyone running across the street. They are on alert for suicide bombers, the sort that have inspired Afghans to dub the road and the surrounding area “The Valley of Death.”
“This is the bloodiest road,” said Khasar, 28, a vegetable seller who, like many Afghans, uses one name. He stood in his stall across from the Green Village, a heavily guarded compound for foreign contractors that has been attacked several times.
An afternoon spent along a particularly violent stretch of the route — the Kabul-Jalalabad Road — helps illustrate the challenges in securing this capital city, as most U.S. and international forces prepare to withdraw by the end of this month. Here, it’s difficult to distinguish the enemy from local residents, and the targeting of foreigners is fueled by perceptions they are engaged in nefarious activities.
Over the past three weeks, Kabul has been rocked by an unprecedented series of Taliban attacks. That has instilled fear in Afghans and foreigners, convincing many to leave the capital temporarily or make exit plans in case the situation gets worse.
But in the Valley of Death, life goes on, highlighting the resilience of ordinary Afghans. Their attitude is reminiscent of the way Iraqis responded to the relentless suicide attacks and car bombings that occurred in Baghdad for years. After every assault, they would clean up the shattered glass, remove the mangled cars and continue on with their lives. Along the Kabul-Jalalabad road, many Afghans have done the same.
“This is our only option,” said Samir Asifi, 22, another vegetable seller. “Otherwise, we can’t buy bread for our family. Everyone around here has no option but to stay here and work.”
Two weeks ago, his 10-year-old brother, Zamir, was wounded in the leg when a suicide bomber detonated a car filled with explosives near a British Embassy vehicle, killing a British citizen and five Afghans. The attack unfolded next to Asifi’s shop.
Three days earlier, a remote-control bomb attached to a bicycle killed two American soldiers passing by in a convoy. Two weeks ago, in the same area, a truck bombing at a compound filled with foreign contractors killed two Afghan guards. At around the same time, Taliban militants, including four suicide bombers, tried to break into the Green Village. They were repelled by Afghan security forces after an hour-long gun battle.
Last week , outgoing Afghan Interior Minister Omar Daudzai said the Taliban was seeking to pressure the government and maintain momentum over the few months before the annual fighting season traditionally begins.
“The enemy wants to keep the attacks at a certain level this winter,” Daudzai told reporters. “Because they don’t want to start from zero in the summer.”
Afghan law enforcement officials provide two reasons for the spate of attacks along the road. Many foreigners, including military, security contractors and aid workers, live in compounds in the area and use the road. Also, the neighborhoods flanking the road are over-populated, dense areas without proper streets, providing cover for militants.
“The enemy can easily infiltrate onto the main road,” Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi said.
Today, he added, security along the road has been bolstered, with added personnel, checkpoints and outposts. The Interior Ministry, he said, has launched an awareness campaign here and in other parts of the city to convince locals to “identify terrorists” and report any suspicious activities.
But residents along the road painted a more complex picture, underscoring the tough task ahead for Afghan security forces.
Take the Green Village. Hardly any Afghans interviewed saw the compound, behind tall blast walls and fencing topped with barbed wire, as the home of foreigners who were helping their nation. They said they viewed it as a place of ill repute, with activities that ran counter to Afghanistan’s conservative beliefs.
“This Green Village is a brothel,” declared Ahmed Jan, 20, who fixes generators across the road from the compound. “I agree with the [Taliban’s] decision to attack it. I wish the attackers could have gotten inside and blown themselves up.”
Members of several Pashtun tribes — some with allegiance to the Taliban, which is made largely of the same ethnic group — live in enclaves flanking the road. Local residents and police suspect some of them of providing havens for suicide bombers or places to hide explosives.
“The Taliban can infiltrate inside the government,” said Abdul Nasir, 53, a mechanic, referring to a recent failed attempt by the insurgents to assassinate Kabul’s police chief inside the heavily fortified police headquarters. “Of course they have spies among the people. The majority of the people living around here are illiterate. They are easily influenced.”
“There are good people here,” continued Nasir, who is ethnic Pashtun, “and there are bad people here.”
Seddiqi, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said he was aware of the allegations, but said officials had yet to find any evidence that locals along the road were helping the Taliban to stage attacks.
Some police officials did blame a familiar culprit: Pakistan, long accused by Afghans of destabilizing their country and aiding powerful Taliban factions based in Pakistan.
“This is the road to import goods from Pakistan,” said a police commander standing next to the Green Village, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Through truck convoys, Pakistan has access to Kabul. They can smuggle in explosives, arms.”
The question on the minds of many locals was this: Would their lives improve after most U.S. and foreign troops leave by the end of the month?
“The root of the problem are the foreigners,” said Jan. “They must be forced to leave. If they leave here, everything will get better.”
Not everyone along the road was convinced.
“I am afraid that if the foreigners leave, things will deteriorate further,” said Asifi, the vegetable seller. “The government is not able to secure the area.”
“Now, it’s unclear whether the insurgents are targeting foreigners, Afghans or Muslims,” he continued. “They are targeting everyone.”
Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.