[R-G] The Taliban’s Baghdad Strateg
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Wed Jul 30 14:23:43 MDT 2008
The Taliban’s Baghdad Strategy
The insurgents are closing in on Kabul, not in order to overrun the
capital but to terrorize its residents and drive away investors. It's
Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
Updated: 2:11 PM ET Jul 26, 2008
Faridoon stares in alarm at the two NEWSWEEK reporters who just walked
into his shop. "You guys better get out of town fast," the 21-year-old
Afghan says as quietly as possible. "There's Taliban everywhere."
Lying in the street outside are the burned-out hulks of a gasoline
tanker and a shipping-container truck that someone set ablaze two
nights before, right in front of Faridoon's motor-oil shop in Maidan
Shar, the tiny, dust-blown capital of Maidan Wardak province, barely
25 miles south of Kabul. Only days earlier and a few miles farther
down Highway 1, Taliban fighters ambushed and burned a 50-truck
commercial convoy that was carrying fuel and supplies for the U.S.
military. Even during the day, Faridoon and other townspeople warn,
it's not safe to visit the area.
Afghanistan's insurgents have a new target—Kabul, and the belt of
towns and villages surrounding the capital. "Today the Taliban are
here," says Maidan Shar's white-smocked pharmacist Syed Mohammad, 32.
"Tomorrow they may be in Kabul." The supply convoy was attacked in his
home village, a dot on the map called Pul Surkh, where he says
insurgents now travel freely, packing new AK-47s and rocket-propelled-
grenade launchers. A series of spectacular recent terrorist incidents
have shaken Kabul, a city that is all too familiar with violence.
Blast walls and barbed wire have sprouted to defend against suicide
bombers; residents are afraid to travel even a few miles outside the
city. To some, the Afghan capital is beginning to feel like a new
That's exactly what the Taliban want. The insurgents can't approach
the firepower of the Coalition and its Afghan National Army allies.
"No one is going to take Kabul or any provinces or province capitals,
or establish the Revolutionary Republic of Afghanistan," says a senior
Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the
militants seem to have realized what the U.S. military did just before
its surge in Iraq: that instability in the capital has an outsized
psychological impact on a country. "Personal security is under fire,"
the Western diplomat admits. "That's an enormous problem."
So the Taliban have launched a surge of their own. By focusing on
Kabul, "we can create panic and undermine the last vestiges of support
for the regime," says a senior Taliban intelligence operative in
Pakistan, declining to be named for security reasons. Mullah Bari
Khan, a Taliban commander in Ghazni province, tells NEWSWEEK the group
is pushing its agents and fighting men into Kabul from surrounding
provinces—and the provincial governor, Osman Osmani, says he's afraid
that insurgents from his area may be moving in that direction. Khan
claims Taliban strategists have divided Kabul into 15 zones. Each one
is supposedly to get its own operatives, with some bringing their
families along to serve as cover while they work to recruit local
support and prepare for new attacks.
The Taliban's psy-war offensive has been deadly and effective so far.
In January the group attacked the heavily guarded Serena Hotel, a
favorite of high-profile foreign visitors, killing seven. In April,
Taliban snipers opened fire on a military parade, sending President
Hamid Karzai scrambling for cover and killing one member of
Parliament. And in July a suicide bomber in a new 4-by-4 packed with
explosives rammed the Indian Embassy, directly across the street from
the Afghan Interior Ministry, killing two Indian diplomats and some 40
other people. Qari Talha, one of the Taliban's chief agents in Kabul,
boasts that the Indian Embassy blast was a great success, but says he
had no advance knowledge of it. Afghan intelligence and foreign
diplomats strongly believe the three attacks were planned and
coordinated by insurgent commanders in Pakistan. Each cell operates
independently of the others, Talha tells NEWSWEEK. He says the Taliban
will continue to target senior government officials, embassies and
hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners.
A sense of life under siege is spreading across the city. The main
street past the Indian Embassy and another major thoroughfare beside
the Foreign Ministry are closed to traffic until further notice, just
like the road that runs in front of the U.S. Embassy and NATO's
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters. Other
streets that remain legally open are all but impassable because of the
huge concrete blast walls that are planted outside potential terrorist
targets. Private cops are posted at street entrances in some upper-
class residential neighborhoods to check the identities of all
visitors, and homes and businesses are protected by security guards,
sandbagged fighting positions, concertina wire and floodlights. "Kabul
is being transformed into a Baghdad-like Green Zone," says human-
rights activist Ahmed Nadery. "It's not a pretty picture."
Many Afghans are sure the insurgents have the capital surrounded—a
story quite possibly invented by the Taliban. "I'm certainly aware of
the rumor," says the senior Western diplomat, adding dryly: "I don't
think that's our assessment." While the number of clashes between
Coalition troops and the Taliban has risen more than 40 percent over
last year's figure, he says the number of terrorist attacks in Kabul
overall is down. "Security in Kabul is actually pretty good," says a
senior ISAF official, asking not to be named so he could speak freely.
After the April attack on the military parade, Afghan police broke up
several Taliban terrorist cells, and the security forces' intelligence
network is solid, he says. Still, he admits, people are afraid. "The
incidents in Kabul are few, but are very eye-catching," he adds. "The
insurgents are attacking Afghan perceptions."
Everyone is feeling the effects. Wardak, the director of an Afghan
nongovernment development group (he asks that his full name not be
used for safety's sake), says that when he leaves for the office every
morning his wife holds a Qur'an over his head and says a prayer that
he will come home safely. When his bus passes a street that has been
blocked for security reasons, fellow passengers often burst into
curses and insults against Karzai and his government. "People ask why
doesn't he resign and leave the country if he can't protect us,"
The fear is worst among those who have to travel south of the capital.
Last week Wardak canceled plans to attend a cousin's wedding near
Maidan Shar after relatives told him his name was on a Taliban hit
list. A radio executive, also asking not to be named, says the danger
of being kidnapped kept him from attending a relative's funeral this
July in Logar province, just south of Kabul. In separate incidents two
weeks ago, two judges and a member of Parliament were kidnapped in
broad daylight on a main road in the province. "We are in danger of
losing Logar," says Shakeela Hashimi, a member of Parliament from the
province, who says government control vanishes there at sundown and
doesn't return until the next morning. "The gap is widening further
between the government and the community," she says, blaming
mismanagement, rampant corruption and the reluctance of many officials
to leave their offices and meet with the people on their own ground—
not to mention a stray Coalition airstrike that hit a teacher's house
in July, killing his young son.
Everyone agrees that to venture beyond Maidan Shar is to risk one's
life. The highway to Kandahar, rebuilt and widened by the Americans as
a symbol of hope and progress after the Taliban's collapse, has become
a shooting gallery. Battles and roadside bombs have ripped up the
pavement and damaged bridges, and the shoulders are littered with
burned-out vehicles. Afghan journalist Ghusu Khan recently made the
nerve-racking bus trip from Kandahar to Kabul and vows he'll never do
it again. A few days earlier, a long-bearded friend of his was on a
bus that was stopped by Taliban fighters. The gunmen ordered Khan's
friend and 11 other men off the bus and shot two of them dead beside
the road—one because he was carrying a photo of his brother, a soldier
in the Afghan National Army. Khan's friend was released five days
later after his family paid a $20,000 ransom.
Drivers at the Kabul-to-Ghazni taxi stand, on the capital's southern
outskirts, say their business is down 40 percent. Some refuse to be
interviewed, saying they're afraid to talk with foreigners because
Taliban agents are watching. "Security has never been worse," says
driver Zahir Khan. Another driver tells of an encounter he had a week
earlier with a group of 20 armed Taliban who were stopping traffic
just south of Maidan Shar, checking all passengers' IDs and looking
for anyone affiliated with the government. He says he saw at least two
men being led away. "One way to dishearten people is to limit or take
away their freedom of movement," says the ISAF official. "If the
Afghans can't keep these roads open and safe, morale will plummet
The Taliban gave plenty of advance notice of their plans. "Our
military operations will focus on the capital cities of the four
regions of the country, including Kabul," said the group's second in
command, a man known as Mullah Brader, in a long interview with a
Taliban Web site in September 2007. The first stage, he said, would be
the "surveillance and control of roads leading to Kabul from Maidan
Shar" and other areas just south of the capital. The primary tactic,
he said, would be "martyrdom-seeking [i.e., suicide] attacks and
roadside blasts, as this tactic is the most effective in inflicting
more losses upon the enemy."
Soon after the interview was posted, Taliban sources say, the group's
operatives began reactivating networks in villages that had long been
peaceful. Sleeper agents and sympathizers who had holed up quietly in
Maidan Wardak and Logar ever since 2001 began enlisting new fighters
from the ranks of unemployed young men in neglected rural villages.
Afghan insurgents and foreign jihadists were sent in from longtime
Taliban strongholds in eastern Afghanistan and across the Pakistan
border in Waziristan to train, equip and direct the reconstituted units.
Faridoon and his pharmacist neighbor, Mohammad, say the buildup in
their home villages began several months ago; local police and the
Afghan National Army seemed unable to prevent it. At weddings,
funerals and Friday prayers, local mullahs exhort their congregations
to support the Taliban and oppose the government. The group pays newly
recruited fighters roughly $200 a month, the pharmacist says—almost
double the pay of police and Afghan National Army soldiers. According
to one Maidan Shar police officer, intelligence estimates now place
the insurgents' armed strength in the province at nearly 1,000 fighters.
The province's newly installed governor, Mohammad Halim Fidai,
downplays the threat. "The insurgents don't have a place in the
people's hearts," he says. "They are not strong here and can't
threaten Kabul." Besides, he says, the Afghan National Army has just
sent reinforcements to bolster security, especially at the insurgents'
favorite ambush points along the highway. But rumors persist that the
Taliban have set up car-bomb and suicide-belt factories in Maidan
Wardak and neighboring Logar province, close to the capital.
Even the governor admits he's concerned about the "outsiders" who are
joining the locals. Al Qaeda is now sending more fighters to
Afghanistan, according to a senior Taliban commander who was recently
interviewed by NEWSWEEK on the Afghan-Pakistan border but who declined
to be named for security reasons. He says Al Qaeda's leaders agree
with U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama that
Afghanistan, not Iraq, is their central battleground against the West.
"We are seeing more foreign fighters," the senior Western diplomat
confirms. "They are Turks, Chechens, Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and
Pakistanis." And they're making the Taliban more dangerous. The
foreigners are better equipped and trained than the locals, and they
tend to stand and fight rather than disengage after the first exchange
of gunfire, as Afghan insurgents generally do.
Students at Kabul University say they don't like the way the country
is headed—and if they leave, Afghanistan's hopes for the future will
depart with them. "I'm worried," says 20-year-old sociology student
Khalid Dehati. "My father says personal security today is as bad as it
was under the communist regime." Computer-science major Ali Arifi, 19,
says he can't even visit his home village in Ghazni because the
Taliban have taken the place over. "I want to stay to help my
country," he says, "but all my friends want to leave." Science student
Zulaikha Afzali, 21, isn't shy about saying she intends to leave the
country when she graduates. "Afghanistan is, was, and will be
insecure," she says. "I'm heading for Germany." Asked if they'll vote
for Karzai in next year's presidential election, she and five friends
blurt in unison: "No!"
Like the Iraqis, many Afghans have begun checking for escape routes,
just in case. One American who heads a non-profit research group in
the capital, asking not to be named, says Afghans on his staff have
asked him to promise he'll get them out if security collapses. During
the chaos of the 1980s and '90s, millions of Afghans streamed out of
the country to camps in Pakistan and Iran. Both countries have now
forcibly repatriated most Afghan refugees and closed their doors to
new arrivals. One married 26-year-old Afghan who works in rural
development says his father, a police brigadier, recently sat him down
and advised him to start planning an exit strategy for his wife and
their infant son. The young man can only shake his head: he doesn't
know where they can go.
Some civilians aren't waiting around to see if things get worse.
Shakeela Hashimi's 21-year-old son, Samir, has shut down his used-car
dealership and is preparing to take his wife to Canada. He says
there's too much crime and insecurity in Kabul. "Two years ago we had
hope," he says. "Now we are losing it." The family is still mourning
his 17-year-old sister, who was shot dead last year by an unknown
assassin in the family's house. The Logar parliamentarian believes the
bullet that killed her daughter was meant for her. Najib Ahmadzai, a
Peshawar-based people smuggler, says his business tanked after the
Taliban fell, but demand for his services has come back strong this
year. It's hard for Afghans to get visas from most Western countries—
and ironically enough, it's often easier for them to apply for asylum
if they have no visas. Wardak says he's heard of people paying as much
as $30,000 to be smuggled through Iran and Turkey to Europe.
Any route out will do. In May, Wardak led a nine-member delegation to
Brussels for a series of meetings at NATO headquarters. But when it
was time to go home, he says his colleagues told him they had all
decided to stay in Europe, with or without formal asylum. He finally
talked them out of their plan, he says, but it was a tough sell. In
July, the only woman on Afghanistan's four-member Olympic team, 800-
meter runner Mahbooba Ahadgar, disappeared from the team's training
camp in Italy and reappeared in Norway, asking for political asylum.
Just as ominously for the country's future, Kabul's formerly bullish
business investors are pulling out. "The decline in security has been
steep in the past two months," says Hamidullah Farooqi, the chairman
of Banke Millie Afghan. "It's getting bad." Street criminals are
thriving. "The biggest problem the business community faces is the
serious kidnapping threat from mafia-like criminal gangs," Farooqi
says. "We've lost a couple of our friends to kidnappers, and others
have lost their money and cars. They had no choice but to pick up and
leave." Many of the country's richest executives are moving their cash
to safety in Dubai, he says, like one Afghan businessman he knows who
has invested $4 billion in various projects there. People in Kabul say
roughly 20 percent of all real-estate purchases in Dubai last year
were made by Afghans pulling their cash out of the country, and
Farooqi says the estimate sounds right to him.
The public's sense of gloom only feeds on itself. Still, no one seems
to know how to turn it around. The trend keeps looking worse, Farooqi
warns. "We face a serious lack of security, corruption, crippling
bureaucracy, bad government policies and bad government behavior," he
says. "No wonder business is leaving." "Anything that affects hope is
crucial," says the senior Western diplomat. Right now, the Taliban
have cornered the market.
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