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.
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.
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.
On the other, Afghans see foreign forces who, according to common perception here, usurp the authority of local elders, happily let their male soldiers search Afghan women, and are inclined to shoot first and ask questions later.
In the space of 24 hours last weekend, US forces bombed a family home in a village 50 miles north of Kabul killing nine and engaged in a firefight near Jalalabad that left 10 Afghan civilians dead. In both cases, US forces say that they were attacked first and that insurgents sought to create civilian casualties in the chaos.
But the incident outside Jalalabad in particular has focused on what is perceived as a disproportionate and incautious response by NATO forces to the initial threat from the Taliban, leading Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call for an investigation.
Western forces deny these characterizations. "We are here to protect the people of Afghanistan," says Lt. Col. Angela Billings, a spokeswoman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO's force in Afghanistan.
Operation Achilles is an example of this, ISAF officers say. "It signifies the beginning of a planned offensive to bring security to northern Helmand and set the conditions for meaningful development that will fundamentally improve the quality of life for Afghans in the area," Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, commander of ISAF's southern forces, said in a statement.
Last year, similar military sweeps, such as Operation Medusa, had a significant effect. When the Taliban seized large swaths of territory and tried to hold onto them, the militants sustained heavy losses. But the Taliban's strategic advantage lies in their ability to sow confusion and draw Western forces into attacks that cause civilian deaths.
This year, the Taliban may be more inclined to harry and harass, experts say, stretching NATO as thin as possible by kindling dozens of flash points across the country simultaneously.
"You're not going to see a mass attack – you're going to see a more spread-out offensive," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." "They would like to see more crises in European capitals and countries being forced to pull out" of the ISAF alliance.
This has already happened in Italy, where questions of the country's commitment to Afghanistan almost toppled the prime minister recently.
But it also has a clear impact here, where some Afghans protested the deaths in Jalalabad not only with chants of "Death to America!" but also "Death to Karzai!"
Indeed, on the streets of Kandahar, some see the local Canadian ISAF contingent as a greater menace than the Taliban.
Among a clutch of rickshaw drivers assembled by a dusty curbside recently, one says that the Canadians shot his nephew; and another claims that they shot two of his cousins, who were only riding their bicycles.
It was not possible for The Monitor to verify or discredit these claims, but they are indicative of a prejudice among some sections of the population here. "As soon as we see troops on the road, we pull off," says driver Sardar Mohammad, whose weathered face crinkles in lines of grandfatherly concern. "We are afraid of them."
For these men, the concern about the Taliban is something different. No one wants to kneel to perceived Pakistani imperialism. But at least the Taliban are of their same Pashtun stock. They do not fear every bearded face, and they understand the customs of Afghanistan – as well as the importance of Islam.
"There is a reason the fighting is not stopping in Afghanistan: [Foreign troops] don't know our culture," says Dost Mohammad, whose voice seems to be pleading as much as condemning. "They come with their boots into our mosques. This is why everyone is fighting against them."
Nearby, the corpulent figure of Neda Mohammad stands amid the crowd, his hands folded regally, his large frame cloaked in many folds of fine brown fabric. He is from the neighboring province of Oruzgan, but he says that he fled here because Western jets bombed his village. "If there is less persecution on us, then we would prefer the Taliban," he says matter-of-factly.
Alima, however, would not.
She ghosts through the muddy back-alleys of Kandahar, the fringes of her silvery-blue burqa fluttering behind. To some, her job of walking door-to-door to give children a free polio vaccination would be seen as humane. But even now, it is enough to get her killed here.
Not only is she a woman doing work – something forbidden in the most conservative interpretations of Islam – but zealous mullahs have also claimed that the immunization program is part of a covert campaign by foreign powers to sterilize Muslims.
If the Taliban were to come back, things would only get worse. "Of course I am scared of the work I am doing during the day – I have nightmares," she says, offering only her first name. "I am afraid that someone will come and shoot me in the head."
But she attempts to steady herself. She needs work to feed her family and buy them clothes, and she wants to serve her people. "If I don't do it, who will?"
To be sure, the potential return of the Taliban offers a far different prospect for the women of Kandahar than it does for the men. "See, I am working!" says Zahra Suliemani, another volunteer in the vaccination campaign, whose bony hands sway beneath her back veil, gripping her medicine box tightly. "I can go out and work as much as a man can work."
"No one wants the Taliban to come back," she says firmly.
But here, amid the ebb and flow of war, lives are already changing. Among the crumbling earthen houses and green spinach fields of her neighborhood, 9-year-old Nazeka chases her friends down dirt paths, shrieking with delight. But when she walks to school, her shoulders cautiously brush the walls by the side of the road. She tries to stay as far from the road – and the car bombs – as possible.
Sometimes, when she has to cross the road, she will ask a Canadian soldier to help her. Sometimes, she says, they do.
"I am afraid of the Taliban, because they are the ones making explosives," says Nazeka. "And I am afraid of the foreign soldiers because wherever they go, there are explosions."
At 9, Nazeka has already seen enough suffering. Unconsciously, she grasps a friend's hand as she explains, in an unwavering voice, how one night in the past "some people took my grandfather and tore him in pieces and then brought him back."
She does not know who did it or why they did it. Nor does she seem to care. "People should be so happy in this country," she says, smiling. "I do not like this war."
Along the city's main thoroughfare, however, those old enough to have seen many such wars merely shrug.
Abdul Bashir, for one, does not seem to be an overly worried sort of person. With a roguish grin, he somewhat curiously attributes his good business this month to the successful lettuce crop.
This from a man who sells used boom-boxes, stacked to the ceiling of his small stall. He polishes one, attempting to make it look presentable amid the dust, while recounting 30 years of violence – from the "holy war" against the Soviets to four years of civil war to the rise and fall of the Taliban.
"The security situation is a concern," he says, the sparkle in his eyes undimmed. "But we're used to it."