KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban attack last week on a popular resort outside Kabul not only terrified locals and undermined the U.S. and Afghan government narrative that security here is improving. If the views of Kabul University students are any guide, the attack also showed that President Hamid Karzai’s administration is fast losing the confidence of a generation of aspiring professionals critical to rebuilding Afghanistan.
Eighteen Afghans – including a police officer and several security guards – were killed in the raid on Qargha Lake’s Spozhmai restaurant, which began late Thursday night and ended at 11 a.m. Friday. All four Taliban attackers were also killed in fierce fighting with Afghan and coalition forces.
“We’re all really worried about what happened at Qargha,” said Ekrullah, 19, an Earth sciences student at Kabul University. Referring to the lakeside resort about a half-hour’s drive west of the capital, he said, “This is a place for picnics, but after this attack we won’t be able to go to such places because we’re so scared.”
Afghan government and coalition officials have been quick to praise the Afghan police commandos involved in ending the siege, offering their actions as an example of the steadily improving quality of Afghan security forces. But a McClatchy reporter at the scene Friday observed Norwegian special forces soldiers – the Afghan commandos’ trainers – leading an assault on the restaurant where the attackers were holed up.
Ekrullah, who like many Afghans uses only one name, said he did not believe officials’ claims that Afghan security forces will be able to adequately defend the country when the majority of international combat troops leave by the end of 2014. “We’re so nervous about the future after 2014,” he said. “The Afghan security forces need at least five years’ support and development. They’re just not ready now.”
University students represent a sophisticated and educated young elite in a country where the majority of adults are illiterate, and they are not prone to overstatement. However, almost all of the dozen students McClatchy interviewed said that security was getting worse and that the government was not being honest with its people about the severity of the crisis.
Earlier this week, the U.S.-led coalition reported that insurgent attacks in May rose 21 percent from the same month last year, a sign that the Taliban-led insurgency is far from defeated. None of the students had confidence that the Afghan government or its security forces would be able to cope with the growing challenge.
“The ANA (Afghan National Army) are recruiting people who have economic or other problems,” said Aisha Mohammadi, a 21-year-old law student, referring to the fact that many recruits are unemployed or drug users. “They’re not motivated; they just want a job.”
Mohammadi said that the attack at Qargha had seriously damaged the perception that security in Kabul had been relatively good. “I’m worried, I’m scared,” she said. “Now my family won’t allow me to go to Qargha for a picnic.”
The Taliban have claimed in a Website statement that they targeted Spozhmai because the restaurant was being used for activities prohibited by Islamic law, including prostitution and the consumption of alcohol. However, while alcohol was known to be used at the resort, managers there and local authorities have strongly denied the claims of illicit sexual activity.
Psychology student Abdul Sami, 20, said that the real message the insurgents wanted to send was very clear: “The Taliban want to show their power, their strength, and that they can attack anywhere they want to.”
Law student Sahar Yaser, 23, in her final year at the university, said that women were especially shocked by the incident because the area was one of the few where families felt they could visit with some degree of safety.
“I was one of the people who used to go to the lake, but now families will not dare go there,” she said.
Asked about claims by Afghan and coalition officials that security – and the quality of Afghan security forces – is improving, she said: “I don’t believe them at all. In the presence of armed forces from many NATO countries, security is bad, and it will only get worse when they leave.”
Yaser said she was worried that, after 2014, a civil war could restart like the one in the 1990s, which broke out after a Soviet-backed regime in Kabul collapsed in 1992. The instability that resulted from fighting among various factions was one of the main factors in the rise to power of the Taliban.
Nineteen-year-old psychology student Faiz Mohammad said that “as things stand, it’s obvious that security will deteriorate” after foreign troops leave. “I don’t believe what the international forces or the Afghan government say about having improved our country’s security,” he said.
Kabul, the capital, was supposed to be one of the most secure provinces, “yet even the districts of Kabul are not safe,” he added.
Sonia, a 21-year-old journalism student who only had one name, said that Afghans were capable of defeating the Taliban-led insurgency but couldn’t do it without honest leadership from their government.
“The Afghan government is hugely corrupt, and because of its corruption it has no legitimacy,” Sonia said, arguing that 90 percent of Afghans did not trust the Karzai administration.
“The Afghan government does not care about us – about the young generation that is educated. So imagine how little they care about those people who are poor and uneducated,” she said.
Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent.