Afghan capital enjoys relative calm amid security crackdown

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Muhammad Rasoul was heading to work last February when a powerful explosion rocked his car and sent dust through the quiet, early morning Kabul streets.

Within minutes, it became clear that a powerful car bomb had ravaged Kabul's first modern indoor mall — where Rasoul works as the manager — killing 17 people and putting the Afghan capital on edge again.

It took Rasoul and his colleagues two months and $4 million to get the $35 million Kabul City Centre mall and adjacent four-star Safi Landmark hotel back in full operation last spring.

These days, however, as workers construct an ugly steel security entryway for the mall, Rasoul worries less about another attack.

"We are building this door for security," Rasoul said while standing next to the new barrier, "but security has gotten better."

While insurgent violence has expanded steadily throughout the country, the capital has remained relatively quiet since that attack. The last major assault was in May, when a suicide bomber drove into a small military convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people, including four high-ranking NATO officers.

The U.S. military and Afghan security officials said they'd killed or captured hundreds of would-be assailants around Kabul this year, significantly blunting the effectiveness of insurgent forces looking to target the capital.

"Our capacity in Kabul is much better," said Abdul Manan Farahi, a special adviser in the Interior Ministry who served for more than four years as the head of the counter-terrorism unit. "Our focus now — the government focus — is on security for Kabul."

Nestled in a high-altitude valley below the Hindu Kush mountains and with some 4 million inhabitants, Kabul has remained largely insulated from the worst violence over the past decade.

The capital is akin to the crown jewel in the counterinsurgency strategy of Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, who drafted the new doctrine focusing on protecting populations from insurgent attacks and instability.

Relative calm in the capital is one of the key signs of success that Petraeus is touting as progress in the nine-year-old war.

The capture of two U.S. sailors outside Kabul last June was one unexpected catalyst for the improved security. The intense search for the two, whom insurgents killed within days, churned up a number of significant leads.

"A lot of stuff was coming actively and very heavily at that time," said a Western intelligence official, who received permission to discuss Kabul security only on the condition of anonymity. "We've been going after them aggressively since July."

While Afghan forces are responsible for Kabul security, U.S. Special Operations Forces have been quietly supporting them by staging operations in the capital. From April through October, according to figures from the American military, special forces killed 13 people and detained six.

Most of the big attacks to hit Kabul have been the work of the Haqqani network, a Taliban ally based in Pakistan's North Waziristan region that has ties to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.

This year, the U.S-led military coalition has focused more attention on the Haqqani forces. American forces said they'd killed 115 Haqqani members and captured 250 more from June to August. In September, U.S. officials said, they killed or captured more than 100 Haqqani and Taliban leaders.

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghanistan's national security adviser, told McClatchy that military operations around Kabul and in Haqqani's border sanctuaries in Pakistan had disrupted the network's operation.

"The number of commanders that they have lost is significant," Spanta said.

Afghan officials have tripled the number of police officers who guard Kabul and have expanded the so-called "Ring of Steel" checkpoints at key entrances to the city's power centers.

Afghan and U.S. officials say they're doing better at sharing intelligence, which allowed them to thwart attempts to attack an international donors' conference in July, as well as track down insurgents responsible for an embarrassing mortar attack on the capital's closely watched peace conference in June.

The Afghan police force that's responsible for Kabul has jumped from 5,000 officers to 18,000, and the Afghan army has established a new division with 7,000 soldiers to help protect the capital.

The U.S. has demanded repeatedly that Pakistan rein in the Afghan insurgents it covertly supports, but American and Afghan intelligence officials said there were few signs of restraint.

Spanta and other Afghan government leaders called for still more U.S. pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Haqqani operatives and Taliban leaders who orchestrate attacks on Afghanistan from their border sanctuaries.

"This is other evidence for my central thesis: We have to fight the source," Spanta said.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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