Kabul locked down as the Taliban promise “spring offensive”

Afghanistan soldier standing guard in Kabul after a suicide attack on an Army bus injured 7 soldiers and 3 civilians on 9 April, 2011. The Afghan Army as well as international forces are braced for more such attacks as the spring fighting season begins.

KABUL – The police officer was brusque. “Give me your passport.” I proffered the foreigner’s registration card issued at the airport upon entry. He squinted at it suspiciously. Many of Afghanistan’s police are illiterate, and I am hoping he does not notice that the card is a few years out of date.

“No passport?”

“This is better,” I assured him. “It is a government card. It has the Afghan seal.”

He thrusts it back in the window.

“Buro,” he barked, which, loosely translated, means “get out of here.”

Welcome to an evening in Kabul, where traveling a few blocks can get you stopped two or three times. The sign at the checkpoint tells you that you are entering the “Ring of Steel” — the police presence that is supposed to be protecting Kabul residents from the Taliban, criminals, and assorted other dangers.

As a fair-haired foreign female, I most likely do not fit most terrorist profiles. However, I get stopped quite frequently, an experience I share with many other Western women. The bearded, turbaned types move around with ease while I spend hours presenting my credentials to security personnel who cannot read them.

Like so much else in Kabul these days, it seems to make little sense.

Over the past few days the pressure has ratcheted up several notches. The Afghan government, foreign diplomats, and NATO are braced for a Taliban “spring offensive” which is supposed to start any day now.

Judging by the security notices I am receiving in my inbox, as well as by the number of friends who have cancelled dinners and other outings because they are now restricted to “essential movement only,” the international community is taking this quite seriously.

The clearest evidence of this is the fact that the United Nations is temporarily moving its personnel in Kabul onto the military base of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led mission that is conducting the war.

A security announcement sent out Saturday night stated that from May 1-5 U.N. personnel would leave their usual premises due the increased threat of attack.

In the provinces, the U.N. will send its people to stay at the PRTs — Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the civilian-military units that are supposed to be overseeing capacity-building and infrastructure projects and are also quite heavily guarded.

I’m sure it is a case of “better safe than sorry,” but the move does not project vast confidence in the ability of the Afghan security forces to establish and keep order.

The NATO stratcom (strategic communications) team has been working overtime to downplay the danger. The thundering threats from the Taliban are just the last, empty rumblings of a nearly defeated insurgency, it appears.

Take this line from a recent story by the Associated Press out of Brussels, where NATO’s political wing is headquartered:

“NATO says Taliban's announcement of their spring military offensive in Afghanistan is a sign of the insurgents' desperation over recent setbacks.”

An unnamed NATO official told the AP reporter that the Taliban would undoubtedly try and score some propaganda points with some spectacular incidents, but that their tactics are actually "a sign of their impotence and desperation." 

This might have more resonance for me had I not been fed a steady diet of such “spin” since 2006.

Kandahar, the “spiritual birthplace” of the Taliban, as it is now commonly known, was also Ground Zero of the modern insurgency.

In October of 2005 I spent several days in the city, touring Kandahar’s beautiful shrines, picnicking in the park overlooking the lush green Arghandab valley, and shopping in the bazaar for the sparkly caps worn by Kandahari men.

But in December the suicide attacks began in earnest. By the spring of 2006, Kandahar was a virtual no-go area.

As a Human Rights Watch report in January of 2006 stated quite clearly: “Violence blamed on Taliban militia and other insurgent groups has left many southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan off-limits to aid workers, government officials and police.”

Meanwhile, NATO officers within Afghanistan were spinning the same tale as now — that the Taliban were reduced to staging “cowardly” suicide attacks because they did not dare to fight the international troops face to face.

In early 2007, a NATO spokesperson in Kabul told an Afghan newspaper that the Taliban had been cleared out of Panjwayi and Zheray, two districts near Kandahar city. He added that “it is clear that the Taliban have not only been defeated … they have also lost the support of the people throughout Afghanistan.”

Panjwayi and Zheray witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the war — but not in 2006-2007, when the Taliban were supposedly defeated there, but in 2010-2011. “Clean-up” operations are still ongoing, and it could be a long while before anyone believes that the fate of these areas has been decided once and for all.

Since 2006, the Taliban have gained in strength and influence, while the international forces have more than quadrupled their numbers, expended hundreds of billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives trying to defeat what was supposed to be a ragtag troop of diehards.

Now, more than four years after the crowing boasts of victory, the Pentagon has released a “cautiously optimistic report” saying that NATO and its Afghan partners “have made tangible progress, arresting the insurgents’ momentum in much of the country and reversing it in a number of important areas.”

This is right from General David Petraeus’ playbook. The insistence on significant, if “fragile” and “reversible,” gains has been a staple of ISAF stratcom since Petraeus assumed command last June.

But those in Afghanistan know that more and more of the country is becoming unstable. Provinces and roads that were easily navigated two years ago are high-risk areas now — Baghlan, Faryab, Takhar, Kunduz, even parts of Kapisa and Wardak, right next to Kabul.

In 2006 we were looking at “inkblots” of stability that would inevitably spread, eventually connecting with each other as the Afghan and international troops won territory and credibility.

These days we are treated to the image of “security bubbles” that will somehow expand into a general atmosphere of stability.

In the meantime, we are all hunkered down waiting for attacks that may or may not materialize.

Don’t tell anyone, but I think my security bubble has just burst.