Six years after invasion, Taliban is on the rise

By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY

KABUL — In the better times that followed the U.S.-led invasion, Kabul's famous Chicken Street used to attract hundreds of foreigners seeking a bargain on Afghan rugs, leather goods and gemstones such as lapis lazuli.

These days, the Westerners have all but disappeared from the downtown thoroughfare in Afghanistan's capital. At shops such as the one owned by Mohammed Hasef, a 36-year-old rug salesman, security fears have become so intense that he even shoos away beggars out of fear they could be wearing suicide vests.

"All of us shopkeepers have to keep an eye out," Hasef says. He hasn't sold a rug in two months.

Such worries have proliferated among Afghans and Westerners alike since the Taliban's audacious Jan. 14 attack on Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel. The assault on one of the city's best-protected landmarks was the latest — and most dramatic — sign that the Taliban may be gaining strength more than six years after U.S.-led forces invaded to drive the Islamist militant movement from power.

Despite the presence of more than 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops throughout Afghanistan, the Taliban has taken back control of vast rural areas during the past year and now has a foothold just outside Kabul. The attack on the Serena Hotel has raised questions about whether any place in the country is safe from the fundamentalists and terrorists whom the war was originally intended to eradicate.

"The Taliban were able to demonstrate in the Serena attack that they could target Westerners virtually anywhere and anytime, even deep in Kabul," says Seth Jones, counterinsurgency specialist at the Rand Corp. think tank.

The NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, says that the Taliban is in fact on the run in many parts of Afghanistan. In an interview Tuesday, he acknowledged that the Serena attack was "a spectacular hit" by the militants but said its significance "was probably not as big as it was made to seem."

Still, the shattering of the illusion of security has come as a shock for many of the European and American diplomats, aid workers and contractors working here. Many had moved to Kabul with hopes of erecting a stable democracy in the country where Osama bin Laden was believed to have planned the 9/11 attacks.

Many Westerners had considered Kabul, unlike Baghdad, a place where they could visit restaurants — and even get a beer or two.

"One of the joys of Kabul was the ability to go out and socialize," says entrepreneur Saad Mohseni, editor of Afghan Scene, a monthly magazine that chronicles Kabul nightlife with photos of carousing foreigners. "We were deceiving ourselves. Nothing is safe in Kabul."

Among the dead in the Serena attack were six hotel staff members, a Norwegian journalist and an American who had come to help Afghanistan back on its feet after decades of war. Thor Hesla, 45, of Atlanta, worked for BearingPoint Management & Technology Consultants, which had a reconstruction contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Now, rebuilding efforts may be in jeopardy. Even before the attack, private investment in Afghanistan plummeted to $570 million last year from $1 billion in 2006 because of deteriorating security, the Afghan Investment Support Agency reported Monday.

At the heart of the problem is the dramatic turnaround staged by the Taliban, which had been pushed deep into the mountains in the years immediately following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Since then, the militant group has taken advantage of safe havens in the mountains bordering Pakistan to regroup and strike across the border at U.S., NATO, and Afghan government forces.

Last year was Afghanistan's bloodiest since the year of the invasion: More than 6,500 people — mostly insurgents — died in 2007, according to a count by the Associated Press. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month that insurgent attacks rose again last year.

A recent report by the Afghanistan NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Security Office, which assesses risks for aid groups, recently said, "A few years from now, 2007 will likely be looked back upon as the year in which the Taliban seriously rejoined the fight."

"Afghanistan is at the beginning of a war, not the end of one," the report concluded.

Who's to blame for insurgents' resurgence?

The fighting may intensify in coming months when the snow melts, signaling the beginning of Afghanistan's notorious "fighting season." President Bush said in his State of the Union address Monday night that he will send 3,200 additional Marines to Afghanistan.

McNeill, the NATO commander, said that the Taliban was under siege during much of last year. He says the militants failed to conduct a major offensive last spring. The Taliban also was driven from the strategically important town of Musa Qala in the southern province of Helmand, where the group derives much of its income from the lucrative, illegal opium trade.

"The insurgent had a terrible year on the battlefield last year," said McNeill, a U.S. Army general. "He got bumped pretty hard. He got bumped fairly constantly.

"He was successful at one thing, and that was staying in the news. And the Serena (assault) helps. (But) he'll have a bad year this year, too."

McNeill says that 70% of insurgent activity is taking place in just 10% of the country, suggesting that the Taliban doesn't have as much clout as is widely believed. Gates told Congress last month that Kabul was not in danger of being retaken by the Taliban.

Others are less sure, mindful that foreign powers have tried — and failed — to subdue Afghanistan for decades. Rand's Jones says the Taliban's recent advances are "eerily reminiscent of the Soviet years" during the 1980s, when Russian troops occupied the cities but Afghan resistance fighters commanded the countryside and eventually won.

An independent study obtained by the Associated Press warned that Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state because of deteriorating international support and the strengthening insurgency. The assessment, co-chaired by retired Marine Corps general James Jones and former United Nations ambassador Thomas Pickering, is slated to be released today.

The Taliban's rise has led to much finger-pointing between supposed allies. Afghanistan blames Pakistan for not wiping out Taliban sanctuaries across the border.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai last week blasted the British, saying their efforts in southern Afghanistan's lawless Helmand province had made things worse. Gates has criticized the United States' NATO allies, saying they don't know how to fight insurgencies.

Many Afghans put the blame closer to home. They condemn Karzai's government for widespread corruption and for failing to deliver basic social services: education, health care, police protection. "There is a massive distance between the government and the people," says Issa Noori, principal of a girls' school in Wardak province on the outskirts of Kabul.

Noori had to close the school and send its 300 students home a year and a half ago when police could do nothing to protect them against Taliban threats.

"Now there is lots of snow. Many people are sick. They want to go to health clinics. But they can't go. The government can't clean the road. The government is indifferent," he says.

"The local population is the center of gravity of any counterinsurgency," Rand's Jones says. "You lose the population, you lose the war. The Afghan government is currently losing the population."

The Afghan government is beefing up security in Kabul, adding 1,000 police and doubling a contingent of anti-terrorist commandos: "More police are coming from other provinces," says Gen. Abdul Manan Farahi, head of counterterrorism at the Afghan Interior Ministry. McNeill says the capital doesn't need more international troops, but that NATO is assisting Afghan authorities in the capital by sharing intelligence.

Foreign business fades

Meanwhile, Kabul has become a scarier, less active place for Westerners and Afghans.

After a day spent contending with Afghanistan and its misery — violence, poverty, corruption — foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists could always find refuge somewhere.

They could party into the wee hours at the L'Atmosphère bar, swap war stories over beers at the basement Hare and Hound Watering Hole or indulge themselves at the Serena's spa.

Since the attack, the city's nightspots have been nearly empty — even on Thursdays, party night.

"A lot of people are keeping a lower profile," says Felix Kuehn, a German who runs an Afghan news service.

The Taliban has threatened to continue attacking foreigners in the places they go to relax, raising fears that Kabul will become another Baghdad.

Some expatriates have left town. Others are sticking to quiet dinners in their guesthouses instead of venturing out. Kabul parties could sometimes attract hundreds of guests, many of them uninvited. Now guest lists are restricted to a few dozen, and the lucky few are warned not to forward the invitation e-mails to their friends, Kuehn says.

"Business is quiet," says Serena general manager M. Christopher Newbery. At lunchtime recently, security guards outnumbered visitors in the hotel lobby, and only three tables were occupied for the buffet in its spacious Café Zarnegar.

The hotel is not encouraging new guests to check in until it has finished a review of security procedures in the wake of the attack. But "it's not just us," Newbery says. "It's everywhere in Kabul."

L'Atmosphère — or L'Atmo, as foreigners call it — closed for a week after the Serena attack and no longer attracts standing-room-only crowds Thursday nights.

"Everybody has been in lockdown," Kuehn says. "If you're facing four trained attackers who are willing to sacrifice their lives, there's little you can do unless you have a small army."

In 2002 and 2003, when foreigners poured into the liberated city, Hafizullah Naziri's leather shop could take in $250 to $300 a day. These days, he averages $35. He struggles to pay rent and can't afford electricity or a heater. So he works in the cold semi-darkness.

Back on Chicken Street, merchants say security and business have been deteriorating for a long time. Some trace the problems to a 2004 suicide attack on the street that killed a U.S. soldier and an Afghan girl.

Others point to the bloody riots that broke out in May 2006 after a U.S. military truck careened out of control in a Kabul market, plowing into a crowd and killing five Afghans.

"I haven't seen foreigners for a long time on Chicken Street," says 8-year-old Fawad, who has just one name. He used to make $10 to $20 a day selling matches and maps; now he's lucky to make $2 or $3.

However, most agree that the attack on the Serena — so renowned for tight security that embassies would schedule events there — will only make things worse. "The Taliban saw they can go into the safest place in Kabul and explode themselves," says Fardin Sudiqi, 36, who sells scarves and dresses.

Police and private security guards are out in force. Any pedestrian who gets near the Interior Ministry compound downtown is frisked for weapons.

The Serena attack "knocked the whole world off-kilter," Jean MacKenzie, who trains Afghan journalists at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, wrote on her blog. "Some of us lost friends and loved ones when the Taliban stormed the five-star establishment. … Others just lost their refuge, the gym and spa where we used to unwind. … But all of us lost whatever illusion of security we had in Kabul."

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