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Afghans caught in war's rising tide

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 2007


Along Afghanistan's long southern frontier, the guns of spring have begun. For months, the Taliban has warned that when the highland snows melt, they will unleash their largest offensive since falling from power in 2001.

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In recent weeks, the tempo of Taliban attacks has increased, hinting at the opening of the spring campaign. Last weekend alone, insurgents detonated a bomb in the western city of Herat and performed what US officials called a "complex ambush" near the eastern city of Jalalabad.

Tuesday, NATO responded in kind, launching Operation Achilles, its largest offensive ever in the country, at the Afghan government's request. With some 4,500 NATO troops and 1,000 Afghan soldiers, the operation is a bold attempt to preempt the Taliban's first blows and take the initiative.

It is also a clear escalation of the stakes, with both sides seeing this as a year that could determine the future of Afghanistan's Western-backed government. And it is here in the Afghan south that the hammer blow is expected to fall hardest.

Operation Achilles is focused on the southern province of Helmand, where NATO troops are attempting to clear Taliban from the area around the Kajaki Dam so that it can be upgraded and repaired. When fully operational, the dam can provide power for some 2 million Afghans in the south.

Moreover, Helmand has emerged as the Taliban's leading front in recent months. The Taliban claim that they control three rural districts in the province, including Musa Qala, which was the subject of a controversial peace deal between British forces and insurgents before the Taliban captured it on Feb. 1.

Tuesday, the Taliban in Helmand said that they captured an Italian journalist who confessed to spying for British forces, according to a Taliban spokesman. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica says it lost contact with reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo Sunday.

In many respects, the developments in Helmand are an echo of what happened last year in neighboring Kandahar Province, which, as the home of leader Mullah Omar, has long been the Taliban's heartland. In the past few years, Kandahar has suffered 73 suicide bombings, by one local newspaper's count, and last summer, the Taliban pushed to within 10 miles of the city.

Now, on the eve of what could be a crucial spring, Afghanistan's second-largest city, less than 50 miles from the front lines, is in a state of suspension, uncertain whether to remain faithful to the government that initially promised so much or to resign itself to the return of the Taliban.

"If I shave my beard and take off my turban, I will be killed by the Taliban. If I grow my beard, I will be killed by [NATO forces]," says Kandahar resident Dost Mohammed, standing on a street corner. "It is a place with two governments – we don't know who we should surrender to."

Like most Afghans both here and elsewhere, Mr. Mohammed speaks not from fear but from an oppressive fatigue born of the mounting sense that his country is once again descending into the cycle of revolution and civil war that has consumed it for a generation. Along with a lingering hope, there remains a deep fatalism that no matter what Afghans do, they will be swept into the whirlwind of war – ever the victims of forces beyond their control.

Caught in the middle

The events of recent weeks have helped strengthen this perception.

On one side, Afghans see the Taliban, which they almost universally consider a Pakistani-equipped army designed to destabilize Afghanistan and who spawn suicide bombers so despicable that they will target the opening of an Afghan medical clinic, as was the case in Khost late last month.