Recurring attacks in Kabul are small but symbolic
Twice this week rockets fell near the Finance Ministry. Such attacks raise fears that stability may be short-lived.
BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — The officer makes a snap security decision: The rug dealers must go. Now.
This was only meant to be a quiet little Friday bazaar, a chance for American soldiers cooped up at Bagram to shop for world-renowned Afghan carpets. But several unfamiliar merchants have shown up, and who knows what they might be packing inside the folds of those jewel-colored carpets and kilims.
"Back! Back! Everyone goes home. The bazaar is canceled for today!" barks an officer at a line of vans, bursting with rugs.
The US military is not taking any chances. Lately, hardly a day goes by when American troops - who number about 8,000 across Afghanistan - or their allies are not targeted. At least two to three times a week, someone launches a Chinese or Soviet-made 107 or 122-millimeter rocket at a US base.
These attacks, combined with recent elections in Pakistan - which brought strong gains for Islamic parties along the northern border - have raised concerns about cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Others are fearing that stability in Afghanistan, currently guarded by nearly 14,000 foreign troops, may be short-lived.
"The rocket attacks have been increasing against all of the coalition forces, and that means that something has changed," says Brig. Mohammed Asif, the Afghan Interior Ministry's deputy director for national security. "We have reports that they [militants] are being financed better now than they were a few months ago."
He cannot - or will not - say by whom. But when Afghans look to the latest political developments in their neighbor, Pakistan, they don't feel at ease. "Two months ago, we didn't have that much danger on the border, but now we have more," Mr. Asif says.
This week, two rocket attacks slammed into an area not far from the Finance Ministry. Over the weekend, a pair of rocket attacks were launched on US bases in central Afghanistan and on an American base near the border with Pakistan.
They are additions to an increasingly frequent list of near-misses: Last Friday, Afghan officials announced that they foiled an assassination attempt on the defense minister. They said they arrested two Iraqi Kurdish men carrying explosives for a suicide bombing. A few days earlier, Afghan officials announced that they had arrested several people planning to attack a Kabul power station.
To be sure, the recurring attacks are hardly inflicting heavy damage, with the exception of a September car bombing that killed 30 people. Some of them are dismissed as nuisance fire, little more than harassment. It can also be difficult to sort out what is actually aimed at US and other foreign troops, and what is so-called "green on green" fighting - military parlance for Afghans against other Afghans.
Among the primary suspects of concern to Afghan officials is Gulbeddin Hekmetyar, an Islamic fundamentalist warlord whose whereabouts are unknown. Unlike the old-news Taliban and the largely foreign Al Qaeda - primarily Arabs and Chechens, as far as Afghans are concerned - Mr. Hekmetyar has more of a grass-roots following.
According to Asif, these extremists avoid targeting Afghan troops so they can be seen as liberators from a new foreign dominion rather than as troublemakers prolonging a quarter-century of war.
Regardless, those who want their fire felt have proven to be quite adaptable. Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in a speech at the Brookings Institution earlier this month that Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts seem at times to have adjusted to US tactics more adeptly than the US has to theirs.
Most of the weaponry used against US forces, for example, is relatively low-tech. Col. Roger King, the military spokesman at Bagram, says the fighters apparently lack the tubes to launch their missiles properly, and are instead forced to launch them by laying them against a wall or rock. The result, he says, has about as much direction as a toy balloon released in mid-air.
On the other hand, the attackers seem to be better at eluding the inevitable return fire. Using a simple timing device - such as a coffee can filled with water - they can delay the firing of a rocket until they've moved to a safe place.
"Someone is getting shot at somewhere just about all the time. There are attacks on us daily," says Colonel King. "It's low-level. It's disorganized. We don't have proof of who it is. It's not like they're card-carrying members of anything. We estimate that the enemies still number in the hundreds in the border region." Afghan officials say it is far more.
With such a needle-in-a-haystack enemy, a heavy portion of the US mission these days focuses on destroying caches. Just last week, King says, US forces destroyed 27 different weapons caches found at Kohe Sofi, northeast of Kabul.
Many posit that if the US is preoccupied with keeping Saddam Hussein in its cross-hairs, the attacks here will only increase - in force and frequency. But King, a Gulf War veteran, does not think the US military's mission in Afghanistan will be affected in any meaningful way by Iraq.
"We've got a pretty small footprint when you consider the size of the contingent," he says, noting that the 8,000 service personnel here are just a fraction of the 488,000 troops in the US Army, not including Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Quipped California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, visiting Afghanistan this week: "Hey, we can chew gum and walk, OK? We know how to do more than one thing at a time."
Mr. Rohrabacher, and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill the week before him, seemed to carry a message, one that seems to need repeating to Afghans almost daily: America is not about to pull back, nuisances or not.
"Everyone knows that if you walk away from it, the seeds are already planted for what happened before," says King. While these militants do not pose a real threat at moment, "the potential for the threat is there," he adds.
Charles Heyman, an Afghanistan-watcher and the editor of Jane's World Armies in London, says the threat may have more potential than the West realizes. "There's a feeling that the situation is volatile and could go anywhere in the long-term," he says in a telephone interview. His barometer, based on his last visit, is made of cloth: "In many areas, people are openly wearing black turbans again."