Thursday's assassination attempt on Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, and a bombing in Kabul, raise new questions about the threats faced by the new Afghan government and what to do about them.
The attacks are likely to reignite the debate over expanding the international peacekeeping force beyond Kabul. They are also likely to underscore the need for better intelligence and cooperation between Afghan and international security forces, say experts. Even before Thursday's attacks, there were growing signs of tension and distrust between the American military and the Afghan intelligence agency, Amniat.
American officials say they are disrupting Al Qaeda's ability to regroup and plan another major terrorist attack. Afghan officials say Al Qaeda has already regrouped, and is easily evading American, Pakistani, and Afghan attempts to bring them to justice.
"We have told the Americans everything. We don't know why the US is not taking action on our information," says the deputy chief of Afghanistan's intelligence service, Aman Khan. "Maybe they don't trust our reports. But if they trust a bunch of illiterate warlords out in the provinces, why don't they trust our information? Our men are skilled, they are experts."
It's a debate with ramifications for the war on terrorism. If Mullah Muhammad Omar or Osama bin Laden is still alive, and continuing to operate, and if the lives of ordinary Afghans don't improve with massive foreign aid, there could be a severe backlash against the American presence here and the new Afghan government, say analysts.
That point may have been underscored Thursday. President Karzai was unharmed in an apparent assassination attempt by a guard who fired on his convoy as he was leaving the governor's mansion in Kandahar. Karzai's American bodyguards returned fire, killing three people, according to Associated Press. Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai was also wounded.
The attack occurred shortly after the worst bombing in string of recent attacks in the Afghan capital. A car bomb exploded near a Kabul market, killing at least 10 people and wounding scores.
Kabul police quickly blamed former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, now an exiled leader of an Islamic faction. Mr. Hekmatyar, a former CIA-supported leader, was also cited recently by the Turkish head of the international peacekeeping force as linked to al Qaeda and ousted Taliban leaders. Hekmatyar has denied any connection.
Thursday's bombing and assassination attempt point out again how difficult it is to secure such a divided country no matter who is in charge. "When the Russians were so deeply involved in the place they had all kinds of soldiers and security efforts, but it cost them dearly and they still didn't get too far with it," says Arthur Hulnick, a former CIA official. "You'd have to beef up the international peacekeeping considerably to have any impact, and I don't know who wants to do that," says Mr. Hulnick, now a professor of international relations at Boston University.
IN an interview conducted before Thursday's attack, Afghan deputy intelligence chief Khan says he's certain that Al Qaeda has regrouped. Based on his agency's network of local spies, and interrogators trained by the Soviet Union, he says he even has the locations of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, the number of their foreign fighters, and their addresses in Pakistan.
At weekly meetings in Kabul, Afghan intelligence officials share their information with US military counterparts. But the two allies are fighting very different strategies in the same war. Afghan spies work to protect the capital, and key points along the border. American forces work with local warlords to deny Al Qaeda and its supporters a base of operations within Afghanistan.
"There are good reasons from an operational standpoint for working operations with local warlords, instead of with central Afghan authorities from Kabul," says Lt. Col Roger King, spokesman at Bagram air base near Kabul. "We do coordinate with the central Afghan army here in Kabul, but we don't do coordination at the local tactical level just for operational security reasons."
Occasionally, these different strategies lead to disagreements of just where the enemy is. Khan says that the top Taliban leaders are not in Zormat; they are living near the Pakistani city of Quetta. And Osama bin Laden is not in Zormat either; he's in the Afghan province of Konar, where only a few hundred US special forces are based.
"They are inside this country. Our reports are 100 percent sure that they are along the eastern border, in Konar Province," says Khan, who manages the day-to-day intelligence-gathering operations of Amniat throughout the country.
Khan's allegations, that Al Qaeda has regrouped and is working with apparent cooperation from some pro-Islamist elements in the Pakistani military, are mirrored by recent comments of top Al Qaeda spokesman, Suleiman Abu Ghaith, during an interview with the Middle East Broadcasting Company. Khan's claims also confirm Afghan military intelligence reports, reported by the Monitor last month, that Al Qaeda was stepping up its activities in Afghanistan's remote Konar Province.
Khan says that the US is being misled both by its Afghan warlord allies, and by its other main partner in the war on terrorism, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI).
Yet, like the US, even some of Afghanistan's top leaders question the motives of Amniat and other Afghan military intelligence agencies.
Throughout its more than 120-year history, Afghanistan's intelligence service has generally worked for the narrow political interests of whatever person or political party is in power. Starting with King Abdur Rahman in 1881, the agency changed allegiances every time a new party took power. Serving the monarchy, then the socialists, then the Soviets, then the Islamic guerrillas, and the Taliban, the feared Khedmat Amniat Daulati, or KhAD, rarely had to change its staff.
Now the agency is headed by Engineer Ali, a former commander for the Tajik-led Northern Alliance. Diplomats say that the alliance receives much of its funding now from Russia and Iran, two countries with different foreign policy goals from the US.
"I don't know if it was good for the national interests or not, but KhAD was good for the communists," says Mir Haider Muttaher, editor of Arman-I Milli, a Persian language newspaper in Kabul. "Personally, I don't think anyone takes care about the national interests these days, just the interests of the political parties. I hope and pray that this changes soon, because this government is a broad-based government of many parties."
Staff writer Howard Lafranchi contributed to this story.