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Continuous coverage of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan: another day, another attack

“Broken momentum” or not, the Taliban’s offensive is raising doubts that the Afghan security forces can keep the peace.
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Afghan security guard shouts orders after a suicide bomber killed at least six people and wounded 23 more at a military hospital May 21, 2011, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The bomb went off in the cafeteria during lunchtime killing and injuring medical students and employees. The Taliban who claimed responsibility. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

KABUL — The news just keeps getting worse.

On Sunday, four suicide bombers in Afghan Border Police uniforms stormed the Traffic Police headquarters in Khost province, sparking a gun battle lasting several hours and finally killing six, in addition to the four attackers.

The dead included one civilian, three police officers, and two Afghan Army soldiers, according to Tolo TV. Four others were injured. All of the bombers were killed — two when they detonated their vests and two in the battle with the Afghan security forces.

But by any measure, this was bad news for those who are looking forward to the “Transition” — Afghans assuming control of their own security — beginning in July.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber, also in a police uniform, managed to gain access to a tightly guarded military hospital in a very “secure” section of Kabul — just yards from the U.S. Embassy.

The attacker detonated his vest in a canteen tent where Afghan medical students were eating lunch, killing six.

Some Afghans were bitterly amused by the news.

“Soon we will see the Presidential Palace in Kabul attacked by suicide bombers in Presidential Guard uniforms,” tweeted Wazhma Frogh, an outspoken Afghan gender specialist.

Many are doubtless feeling the same way. A series of attacks by uniformed “officers” over the past month has made it difficult to trust the armed forces.

On April 27, an Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire on international forces at the Kabul airport, killing nine.

A “policeman” killed the chief of police in Kandahar on April 15, and a few days later a man in an Army officer uniform penetrated the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, reaching the Defense Minister’s office before he was shot and killed by bodyguards. In Helmand, on May 13, two NATO officers were shot and killed by an Afghan policeman as they sat down to lunch.

The Taliban’s unabashed boasting about their success is doing nothing to calm people’s fears. They claim to have dozens, if not hundreds, of undercover police and army officers just ready to act when given the word.

On Twitter and websites, in text messages and via cell phone, the Taliban are communicating their inflated successes in a full-on media blitz.

The Afghan government is limiting itself to terse casualty statements and firm insistence that the situation is under control; the international community is putting on a brave front by condemning the “cowardly” attacks but maintaining that the Afghans will be ready to assume control when the time comes.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the Taliban’s “broken momentum” in his May 19 speech that concentrated on the Middle East and North Africa.

This was the same day that 35 construction workers were killed by the insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, a car filled with explosive rammed an army bus in Nangarhar, and series of attacks in Helmand shook the province.

All actions were claimed by the Taliban, who certainly do not seem to feel “broken,” or even stalled. Operation Badar, as the insurgents call their spring offensive, has certainly made an impression.

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has warned that this could be just the beginning. In a memorandum he issued to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) following Saturday’s attack on the hospital, he said that the insurgents would very likely mount many high-profile operations over the coming months to demonstrate that they were still in the game.

So what is going on? Is this the last gasp of an insurgency that knows its time has come, or the renewed urgency of a force that sees its enemy losing interest in the fight?


Journalists in Afghanistan under siege

The Taliban are threatening to kidnap the press corps — although why they’d want us is anybody’s guess.
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Afghan journalists seek cover in Kabul on Jan. 18, 2010. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s now official: there is a threat-warning out against journalists in Kabul. For once it is not an angry government or irate editors who are hounding us, but the Taliban insurgency, apparently intent on reinforcing their spring offensive with a scribe or two.

This is no laughing matter, I know. I have had several friends who have spent quality time with the Taliban, and it does not sound like a pleasant experience, even with an almost guaranteed book deal at the end of it.

I am getting almost daily messages from various organizations, from the U.S. Embassy to the Committee to Protect Journalists, urging me, and all journalists, to take extra care.

But what does that mean, exactly? A journalist’s job is to go where the story is.


Where’s the rapture?

Here in Afghanistan, I already feel like the world is ending.
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Doves fly near a shrine in downtown Kabul on May 20, 2011. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — It has come as something of a relief to think that, after tomorrow, I may no longer have to worry about the future of Afghanistan, the stalled reintegration process, the collapse of Kabul Bank, my anemic retirement account, or, indeed, much of anything else.

This, at least, is the message being broadcast by Harold Camping’s Family Radio Worldwide, a Christian ministry that states without a doubt that the world will end on May 21. Believers will be taken up to heaven in what they call the Rapture, while the rest of us will have to endure several months of torment before the final reckoning.

This, of course, is news I could have used a bit earlier. I’ve been enduring years of torment in this land of endless war, where the situation seems to be constantly deteriorating on the one hand while progress is frequently reported on the other.

U.S. President Barack Obama announced in his Mideast speech last night that the Taliban momentum has been broken in Afghanistan. On the same day, an insurgent attack killed at least 35 construction workers in eastern Afghanistan, wounding 17 more. Some 20 more are reported missing and presumed to have been kidnapped.


Spa Kabul

In search of respite in the middle of a war zone.
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An Afghan security officer tries to stop photographers from taking pictures outside the Park Residence guesthouse in Kabul after a suicide bombing on Feb. 26, 2010. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan seems once again to be on the back burner, overshadowed by more momentous events. A ten-year-old war cannot possibly compete with the more colorful conflict in Libya, the arrest of IMF chairman Dominique Strauss-Kahn for attempted rape, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 14-year-old indiscretion.

There have been no new government corruption scandals here for at least a few days, and the furor over the killing of Osama bin Laden has at last died down.

I have to confess, the past few weeks have been a bit stressful, what with the Taliban’s spring offensive, a crop of particularly painful civilian casualties, and my finally opening a Twitter account.

I decided that some down time was in order. So, on a beautiful spring day in Kabul, what’s a girl to do to try and relax? I recently read in a blog by a Westerner that the “guilty secret” of journalists in Kabul these days is that it’s, well, fun.

We’ll see.


The Taliban’s spring offensive picks up steam

Fighting begins in earnest in Helmand province, as the Taliban expand Operation Badar
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An Afghan farmer raises his hands as he looks at a U.S. Marine searching for insurgents in Sistani, Helmand Province, on May 7, 2011. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The news coming out of Helmand province on Thursday was far from clear.

The Taliban announced a complex series of attacks throughout the province, targeting police checkpoints and “invader bases.”

The insurgents’ media office was working overtime to spread the news; dozens of tweets, press releases and other announcements were sent out, boasting of tanks “obliterated” in Nawa district; “puppet vehicles” destroyed in Nad Ali, killing all the “minions” inside; and heavy fighting from Greshk to Sangin, two of the most unstable districts in the province, and the scenes of the bloodiest battles between the insurgency ad international forces over the past few years.

Later in the day they reported that they had fired missiles at a police base near the airport and attacked four “enemy bases” in Nawa district.

At the same time, the provincial government in Helmand was doing its best to dispel any notion that the Taliban were making headway.

“Insurgent claims are just propaganda,” crowed a press release distributed by the governor’s media center in Lashkar Gah. “On Thursday, May 19, insurgents have claimed that they have launched the so-called Operation Badar in Helmand, strongly damaging government sites. But this is all just propaganda given to the media.”


Protests in Afghanistan’s north turn violent

Thousands of Afghans, claiming NATO again killed civilians, take to the streets.
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An Afghan protester shouts slogansduring a demonstration in Kabul on April 1, 2011. (Sham Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect the proper name of the Taliban's website. It is

Once again, an operation by international forces has sparked violent protests, this time in the northern province of Takhar. At least 12 people are now dead and more than 65 injured after a crowd angry at the deaths of civilians turned into a mob. It has not yet been confirmed who fired the shots that killed the protesters: the police attempting to restore order or armed agitators within the crowd itself.

On May 17, NATO staged a night raid on what it said was the home of a “facilitator” for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an insurgent group that has been making the headlines more and more often here of late.

Two men and two women were killed; this much is not in dispute. But NATO insists that the women were also insurgents, that they were armed, and attempting to attack the international troops during the raid.

“A woman wearing a chest rack and armed with an AK-47 rifle attempted to engage the force,” according to a statement released by the media office of the International Joint Command (IJC). “The security force gave numerous verbal warnings, but when the armed female pointed her weapon at them, she was subsequently killed.”

Another woman, allegedly armed with a pistol, then ran out of the compound, according to the IJC. She “displayed hostile intent by pointing her pistol at the security force. The security force engaged the female resulting in her death.”

Two males were also killed during the operation. But, the IJC insisted, “throughout the entire operation the security force was careful to ensure the safety of all civilians.”

This explanation apparently did not wash with the residents of Taloqan district, in which the operation took place.

They poured onto the streets, numbering more than 2,000, according to local reports.


Tweeting with the Taliban

Afghanistan's black-turbaned crowd has embraced the modern age.
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Burqa clad Afghan women taking pictures on their mobile phones during the 2009 presidential election campaign. Photo taken on 17 August 2009. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

They may have banned music, television, and photography when they were in power, but the Taliban at war have never missed a chance at self-promotion.

So it is with Twitter, which the Taliban have taken to with abandon. For the past six months or so, when they were limiting themselves to Pashto, they had a smallish but loyal fan club. But in the four days since they started “tweeting” in English they have picked up speed, and now can boast 5,347 followers.

They have over 800 tweets, all of them fairly predictable: “3 US invaders killed, two wounded in clash with Mujaheddin” or “Mujaheddin locked in battle with puppets in Balkh.”

It helps to know the shorthand: “mujaheddin,” with its connotation of “holy warriors,” refers to the Taliban; “invaders” are foreign forces, usually American; “puppets” invariably means Afghan forces or government officials.

The claims are very likely overblown: according to the Taliban tweets for May 16, over the past 24 hours they have killed 10 international troops and wounded seven; destroyed seven tanks and four vehicles, as well as engaging the Afghan army in several provinces, killing 10 and wounding four.

The press office for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led coalition that conducts operations in Afghanistan, records no international casualties during that period.

ISAF’s own Twitter feed was unimpressed with the Taliban’s technological leap.

“What is that? The Taliban are tweeting in English? Lies are lies no matter the language,” ran a post on ISAF’s site.


Prime minister of India addresses Afghan parliament

Kabul and Delhi are trying to get closer, but Islamabad is still between them.
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India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh speaks at a session of the Afghan parliament in Kabul on May 13, 2011 as Afghan President Hamid Karzai watches. (Ahmad Masood/AFP/Getty Images)

In a move that doubtless has Pakistan fuming, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed a joint session of the Afghan Parliament today, a rare honor for a foreign dignitary, doubly so since it occurred on Friday, the traditional holy day.

The speech was long on symbolism, short on substance. The prime minister highlighted the historical and cultural ties between the two nations, and called for a “new spirit” in Indian-Afghan relations.

Of course, given the long and bitter enmity between India and Pakistan, Singh could not resist a few muted digs at the troublesome country that lies between Afghanistan and India.

“Terrorism and extremism are alien ideas to our people,” he told the lawmakers. “They bring only death and destruction in their wake … We cannot and must not allow the flames of extremism and terrorism to be fanned once again.”

Afghanistan has long insisted that Pakistan was the center of terrorism in the region, a view that many in the United States are coming to share, following the discovery of Osama bin Laden living in peace and relative comfort in the shadow of Pakistan’s most important military center.

Judging by Singh’s finely tuned speech, India agrees.


Pakistan, the world’s most unloved ally

After the death of Osama bin Laden, the troubled relationship between the US and Pakistan is causing global headaches. But it’s a walk in the park compared to its relationship with Afghanistan.
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Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (L) and Afghan President Hamid Karzai shake hands at a Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan in Islamabad on May 13, 2009. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The unabashed glee with which Afghans have greeted the news that Osama bin Laden was found comfortably ensconced in Pakistan, just an hour’s drive from the capital, shows just how badly wrong things have gone between the two neighbors.

The presidential palace has released several statements since the raid that killed bin Laden, all of them with the same import and directed largely at the United States: we’ve been telling you for years that the problem is across the border, not here in Afghanistan. Go fight terrorism where it exists, and leave us alone.

Diplomatic officials inside the Foreign Ministry are busy writing cables with just the right degree of disdain for Pakistan’s duplicitous role in the entire bin laden affair, while ordinary citizens are spinning conspiracy theories like Rumpelstiltskin’s gold.

Many of the versions are mutually exclusive: perhaps Osama is not dead; perhaps he has been dead for quite a long time, and the United States has chosen this particular moment to release the information for reasons of its own.

Pakistan knew about the raid — in fact, it was Pakistan’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or the ISI, that gave the CIA Osama’s location. No, Pakistan knew nothing, and is now exposed as the paper tiger it is.

I have not yet met a single Afghan who thinks that Pakistan’s upper echelons were ignorant of Osama’s whereabouts, although opinions differ as to how high the information went.

“Zardari may not have known, but then again, who is Zardari?” said one Afghan official, referring to Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan. “The military knew, that is for sure.”


Just when you thought it was safe to start thinking about a peace deal

Analysis: A new political movement is designed to short-circuit any possible settlement with the Taliban.
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Afghan men scour opium poppies as a U.S. Marine carries out a patrol in Helmand Province on May 5, 2011. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

KABUL, Afghanistan — With the euphoria over the departure of Osama bin Laden slowly abating, hard political questions are coming to the fore. Afghans, long at the center of the whirlwind that began on 9/11, had begun to think that the war might at last be winding down.

The death of the Al Qaeda leader at the hands of U.S. Navy Seals had seemed to force the issue of a peace deal. An increasingly war-weary American public wants an end to the carnage, and opponents of the war were quick to give voice to the sentiment: we went into Afghanistan to get Osama and put an end to Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan. Mission accomplished. Let’s go home.

The thought of an imminent withdrawal of international forces elated some Afghans, and sent others into a panic. Without the safety blanket of U.S. Marines around them, Afghans will be face to face with their own internal contradictions.

On Thursday we got a clear glimpse of what that might look like.

A rally on the outskirts of Kabul — in the parking lot of one of the city’s ubiquitous “wedding halls” — drew a crowd of several thousand people. The reporting of the exact number will doubtless become a political litmus test. Some news outlets estimated as few as 2,000, while others boldly stated that there were 15,000 present. Tolo, the most popular television station and usually the most reliable, simply called it “huge.”

The purpose of the gathering, billed as a “cry for justice,” was to protest any peace overtures to the Taliban, and to publicize a new front called the Basij e Melli, or the National Movement.

The rally was staged by two of the Afghan government’s harshest critics: former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, and former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.