When the Taliban suicide car bomb struck the center of Kabul on Friday, it found grandmother Amena Wahidi in the wrong place at the wrong time – and signaled that five years after Sept. 11, the first chapter in the US war on terror is far from over.
Mrs. Wahidi died, along with 13 other Afghan civilians and two US soldiers, when the explosion in central Kabul – the first such Taliban attack in the Afghan capital – targeted a US military convoy. The attack coincides with heavy resistance from Taliban fighters to the new NATO presence in southern Afghanistan. NATO forces say they have killed some 420 fighters over the past week alone.
"The Taliban are showing that they can operate anywhere at will, even in very high security areas," says Joanna Nathan, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "It is a not a popular uprising at the moment, but people are sitting on the fence waiting to see who will be the winning side."
Popular doubt here about the long-term direction of Afghanistan reflects a perception that the government of Hamid Karzai is weak and the West has not delivered on security and reconstruction, analysts say. Military commanders, international observers, and officials are sounding urgent calls for a redoubling of efforts by the government and its Western backers.
"We can count ourselves lucky that almost five years after Sept. 11, we have approximately 35,000 to 40,000 troops here. Of course things are salvageable, but it's going to be a hard road," says Francis Vendrell, the European Union's Special Representative to Afghanistan.
Mr. Vendrell argues for a three-pronged approach: Kick out corrupt officials, fast-track reconstruction efforts, and – echoing calls by NATO's own commanders – send more troops.
"The government is facing a crisis of legitimacy," says Michael Shaikh with Human Rights Watch. "The only way to deal with this is to tackle the people within its own ranks."
In the past few months, President Karzai has made efforts to crack down on corruption and bad governance. He's appointed an attorney general who has made corruption his top target. Religious conservatives have been swept off the Supreme Court, yielding to more judges trained in modern jurisprudence. And the government has dispatched a raft of new police chiefs and governors to the south, admitting that the central government has not paid enough attention to the volatile south.
"It's not that the Taliban were strong, it's that the government was weak. They have moved into a vacuum [in the south]. There was protracted negligence on our part of those provinces," says Karzai's chief of staff, Jawed Ludin.
But turning around the security situation is now a much more difficult task as the violence has spread beyond the south. Troubling signs are coming in from points north, east, and west as well, with no-go zones and pockets of violence creeping steadily toward the capital:
•Weapons prices in northern Afghanistan – a region where warlords still hold sway – have more than doubled in the past few months, signaling a setback for disarmament efforts. "It's not that there are no weapons available on the market, it's that people are stockpiling and waiting for something to happen," said a Western military official.
•Many parts of Wardak Province, on the western border of Kabul Province, are no longer safe for aid agencies to operate. "People are starting to pull out, and this will give the Taliban a stronger case to win the population over," says an aid worker, who asked not to be identified.
•A week ago, another blast on the Jalalabad road east of Kabul killed a British soldier and four civilians.
•In the western province of Farah, 100 Taliban fighters in pickup trucks armed with rocket-propelled grenades stormed the district headquarters in Kailargar, killing two policemen and torching a health clinic Sunday.
•And a suicide car bomb killed the governor of the southeastern Paktia Province and two others Sunday.
The notion that Kabul remains an oasis of relative stability was punctured by Friday's bombing.
"Through our intelligence sources, we know there's a cell here in Kabul, at least one, whose primary mission is to seek coalition or international troops and hit them with suicide bombs," Col. Tom Collins, a US military spokesman, told reporters in Kabul.
Suicide bombs first became a phenomenon last summer in Afghanistan but the bombers were inept, often killing no one but themselves. That has changed, with more than 70 suicide attacks since the beginning of this year that have become increasingly lethal.
The number of Taliban fighters met on the battlefields of the south has also risen. Partly, this may be due to the Taliban's willingness to pay better. Police are paid around $2 a day, Afghan National Army fighters are paid roughly $4 a day, but Taliban fighters get $8 a day, says Lt. Col. David Hammond, who is training the Afghan National Army in Helmand Province.
While the lure of a little more money no doubt draws some Afghans to the insurgency, the overall economic picture of the country since 2001 is brighter.
According to the IMF, official GDP growth averaged 22.5 percent between 2002 and 2004 and the organization has projected a 14 percent increase for 2005-06. Over a fifth of GDP comes from investment activity with $1.5 billion new since 2003. Most of it is donor aided public investment, but one-third comes as foreign direct investment.
The downside is that nearly a third of the total licit – illicit GDP (almost $6 billion the IMF estimates) – stems from the production and export of opium.
For some Western observers, the past four years feel like a missed opportunity. "US and international attention veered from Afghanistan in mid-2002, and focused on Iraq," says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul. "There was a feeling they had got rid of the Taliban, and left a good man [Karzai], and that things would settle down."
• Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed from Kabul.