Afghanistan’s bloody new year

BBC News – The Taleban have threatened that hundreds of suicide bombers will attack the Afghan government and foreign military targets this year. Mark Dummett reports from Kabul on the increasing fear of violence in the country.

It seems as if the Taleban’s much-hyped spring offensive may have finally begun, but not in any formal sense, at least not in the contested provinces of southern Afghanistan.

There the British, American and other Nato forces remain on the front foot.

But since the country celebrated Nowruz – the Persian New Year – with picnics, dancing and kite flying competitions about a month ago, the insurgents have stepped up their attacks elsewhere.

In the past week alone, bombers have killed 25 people – most of them policemen and private security guards – in the normally peaceful northern town of Kunduz, in the Taleban’s home city of Kandahar in the south and near the eastern border with Pakistan, in Khost.

Kabul has not escaped the violence. Since Nowruz, there have been three suicide attacks on the capital – 10 people have been killed, none of them the intended victims.

It still has to be said that the capital is a great place to be at this time of year.

If you can escape the dust, there is the scent of apple blossom and pine trees in the air. After the long, cold and wet winter, the bazaars are full again and new buildings are going up faster than ever.

More attacks expected

But the head of investigations at the Kabul City Police headquarters is not expecting a prosperous and peaceful year. General Ali Shah Paktiawal is certain that more attackers are on their way.

He reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a wad of photographs. Some are passport photos of expressionless men in suits, others are of archetypical mujahideen fighters, posing with their rifles on barren Afghan hillsides.

“This man,” he tells me, pointing at one of them, “entered Kabul last week. We’ve been trying to track down these other guys, foreigners, for longer.”

For General Paktiawal, a heavy man in a three-piece suit, stopping the bombers is personal.

Police as targets

He says the Taleban have tried to kill him more than 20 times. Three weeks ago they tried to assassinate one of his colleagues.

The suicide bomber waited until his target stepped out of his car, then rushed forward.

But he detonated the explosives too early. Five people walking on the busy pavement were killed in the blast. The detective survived, if more than a little shocked by being hit in the face by the bomber’s head.

General Paktiawal’s bodyguards doze on bunks in the room next door.

There is no natural light in his office. There are a couple of large, dirty sofas and a running machine and a treadmill, that does not look like it has ever been used.

He tells me I am at risk even talking to him here.

Last year someone managed to poison his green tea. I do not touch the glass of tea I have been given.


He pulls out more photos of the bomb victims and the mangled corpses of the attackers.

“They’re mostly young men from Pakistan,” he says. They’re brainwashed in the madrassas, the religious schools, for two or three months, then sent over here.” “I’d be able to stop more of them, if only I had more money.”

He complains that the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force does not help much.

Their mission is to defend Kabul but their heavily armed, armoured, helmeted, camouflaged squaddies look like they come from another planet, when they walk down streets full of shoppers, schoolgirls and businessmen.

In fact, the main factor preventing the suicide bombers from causing greater devastation seems to be their own incompetence.

Young bombers panic

A study of suicide attacks carried out in the first two months of 2007 by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, showed that most bombers only succeed in blowing themselves up.

It appears that many of the young men panic before they reach their targets.

Kabul is by no means a city under siege. There have not been so many attacks that people are scared to leave their homes. But the bombers have created a mood of uncertainty and worry.

The most recent attack took place near parliament, in a part of town that had been flattened by the civil war of the 1990s.

I asked Wazali, who lived through those years of mayhem and now sells handbags from a wooden cart not 100 metres from where the suicide bomber struck, to compare then and now.

“Well, we’ve got a president now and a government, which is a good thing,” he told me.

“Life is much better.

“But in those days, at least you knew who your friends and who your enemies were. There was a frontline, now you’ve no idea who wants to kill you.”

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