Faridoon stares in alarm at the two NEWSWEEK reporters who just walked into his shop. "You guys better get out of town fast," the 21-year-old Afghan says as quietly as possible. "There's Taliban everywhere." Lying in the street outside are the burned-out hulks of a gasoline tanker and a shipping-container truck that someone set ablaze two nights before, right in front of Faridoon's motor-oil shop in Maidan Shar, the tiny, dust-blown capital of Maidan Wardak province, barely 25 miles south of Kabul. Only days earlier and a few miles farther down Highway 1, Taliban fighters ambushed and burned a 50-truck commercial convoy that was carrying fuel and supplies for the U.S. military. Even during the day, Faridoon and other townspeople warn, it's not safe to visit the area.
Afghanistan's insurgents have a new target—Kabul, and the belt of towns and villages surrounding the capital. "Today the Taliban are here," says Maidan Shar's white-smocked pharmacist Syed Mohammad, 32. "Tomorrow they may be in Kabul." The supply convoy was attacked in his home village, a dot on the map called Pul Surkh, where he says insurgents now travel freely, packing new AK-47s and rocket-propelled-grenade launchers. A series of spectacular recent terrorist incidents have shaken Kabul, a city that is all too familiar with violence. Blast walls and barbed wire have sprouted to defend against suicide bombers; residents are afraid to travel even a few miles outside the city. To some, the Afghan capital is beginning to feel like a new Baghdad.
That's exactly what the Taliban want. The insurgents can't approach the firepower of the Coalition and its Afghan National Army allies. "No one is going to take Kabul or any provinces or province capitals, or establish the Revolutionary Republic of Afghanistan," says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the militants seem to have realized what the U.S. military did just before its surge in Iraq: that instability in the capital has an outsized psychological impact on a country. "Personal security is under fire," the Western diplomat admits. "That's an enormous problem."
So the Taliban have launched a surge of their own. By focusing on Kabul, "we can create panic and undermine the last vestiges of support for the regime," says a senior Taliban intelligence operative in Pakistan, declining to be named for security reasons. Mullah Bari Khan, a Taliban commander in Ghazni province, tells NEWSWEEK the group is pushing its agents and fighting men into Kabul from surrounding provinces—and the provincial governor, Osman Osmani, says he's afraid that insurgents from his area may be moving in that direction. Khan claims Taliban strategists have divided Kabul into 15 zones. Each one is supposedly to get its own operatives, with some bringing their families along to serve as cover while they work to recruit local support and prepare for new attacks.
The Taliban's psy-war offensive has been deadly and effective so far. In January the group attacked the heavily guarded Serena Hotel, a favorite of high-profile foreign visitors, killing seven. In April, Taliban snipers opened fire on a military parade, sending President Hamid Karzai scrambling for cover and killing one member of Parliament. And in July a suicide bomber in a new 4-by-4 packed with explosives rammed the Indian Embassy, directly across the street from the Afghan Interior Ministry, killing two Indian diplomats and some 40 other people. Qari Talha, one of the Taliban's chief agents in Kabul, boasts that the Indian Embassy blast was a great success, but says he had no advance knowledge of it. Afghan intelligence and foreign diplomats strongly believe the three attacks were planned and coordinated by insurgent commanders in Pakistan. Each cell operates independently of the others, Talha tells NEWSWEEK. He says the Taliban will continue to target senior government officials, embassies and hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners.
A sense of life under siege is spreading across the city. The main street past the Indian Embassy and another major thoroughfare beside the Foreign Ministry are closed to traffic until further notice, just like the road that runs in front of the U.S. Embassy and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters. Other streets that remain legally open are all but impassable because of the huge concrete blast walls that are planted outside potential terrorist targets. Private cops are posted at street entrances in some upper-class residential neighborhoods to check the identities of all visitors, and homes and businesses are protected by security guards, sandbagged fighting positions, concertina wire and floodlights. "Kabul is being transformed into a Baghdad-like Green Zone," says human-rights activist Ahmed Nadery. "It's not a pretty picture."
Many Afghans are sure the insurgents have the capital surrounded—a story quite possibly invented by the Taliban. "I'm certainly aware of the rumor," says the senior Western diplomat, adding dryly: "I don't think that's our assessment." While the number of clashes between Coalition troops and the Taliban has risen more than 40 percent over last year's figure, he says the number of terrorist attacks in Kabul overall is down. "Security in Kabul is actually pretty good," says a senior ISAF official, asking not to be named so he could speak freely. After the April attack on the military parade, Afghan police broke up several Taliban terrorist cells, and the security forces' intelligence network is solid, he says. Still, he admits, people are afraid. "The incidents in Kabul are few, but are very eye-catching," he adds. "The insurgents are attacking Afghan perceptions."
Everyone is feeling the effects. Wardak, the director of an Afghan nongovernment development group (he asks that his full name not be used for safety's sake), says that when he leaves for the office every morning his wife holds a Qur'an over his head and says a prayer that he will come home safely. When his bus passes a street that has been blocked for security reasons, fellow passengers often burst into curses and insults against Karzai and his government. "People ask why doesn't he resign and leave the country if he can't protect us," Wardak says.
The fear is worst among those who have to travel south of the capital. Last week Wardak canceled plans to attend a cousin's wedding near Maidan Shar after relatives told him his name was on a Taliban hit list. A radio executive, also asking not to be named, says the danger of being kidnapped kept him from attending a relative's funeral this July in Logar province, just south of Kabul. In separate incidents two weeks ago, two judges and a member of Parliament were kidnapped in broad daylight on a main road in the province. "We are in danger of losing Logar," says Shakeela Hashimi, a member of Parliament from the province, who says government control vanishes there at sundown and doesn't return until the next morning. "The gap is widening further between the government and the community," she says, blaming mismanagement, rampant corruption and the reluctance of many officials to leave their offices and meet with the people on their own ground—not to mention a stray Coalition airstrike that hit a teacher's house in July, killing his young son.
Everyone agrees that to venture beyond Maidan Shar is to risk one's life. The highway to Kandahar, rebuilt and widened by the Americans as a symbol of hope and progress after the Taliban's collapse, has become a shooting gallery. Battles and roadside bombs have ripped up the pavement and damaged bridges, and the shoulders are littered with burned-out vehicles. Afghan journalist Ghusu Khan recently made the nerve-racking bus trip from Kandahar to Kabul and vows he'll never do it again. A few days earlier, a long-bearded friend of his was on a bus that was stopped by Taliban fighters. The gunmen ordered Khan's friend and 11 other men off the bus and shot two of them dead beside the road—one because he was carrying a photo of his brother, a soldier in the Afghan National Army. Khan's friend was released five days later after his family paid a $20,000 ransom.
Drivers at the Kabul-to-Ghazni taxi stand, on the capital's southern outskirts, say their business is down 40 percent. Some refuse to be interviewed, saying they're afraid to talk with foreigners because Taliban agents are watching. "Security has never been worse," says driver Zahir Khan. Another driver tells of an encounter he had a week earlier with a group of 20 armed Taliban who were stopping traffic just south of Maidan Shar, checking all passengers' IDs and looking for anyone affiliated with the government. He says he saw at least two men being led away. "One way to dishearten people is to limit or take away their freedom of movement," says the ISAF official. "If the Afghans can't keep these roads open and safe, morale will plummet further."
The Taliban gave plenty of advance notice of their plans. "Our military operations will focus on the capital cities of the four regions of the country, including Kabul," said the group's second in command, a man known as Mullah Brader, in a long interview with a Taliban Web site in September 2007. The first stage, he said, would be the "surveillance and control of roads leading to Kabul from Maidan Shar" and other areas just south of the capital. The primary tactic, he said, would be "martyrdom-seeking [i.e., suicide] attacks and roadside blasts, as this tactic is the most effective in inflicting more losses upon the enemy."
Soon after the interview was posted, Taliban sources say, the group's operatives began reactivating networks in villages that had long been peaceful. Sleeper agents and sympathizers who had holed up quietly in Maidan Wardak and Logar ever since 2001 began enlisting new fighters from the ranks of unemployed young men in neglected rural villages. Afghan insurgents and foreign jihadists were sent in from longtime Taliban strongholds in eastern Afghanistan and across the Pakistan border in Waziristan to train, equip and direct the reconstituted units.
Faridoon and his pharmacist neighbor, Mohammad, say the buildup in their home villages began several months ago; local police and the Afghan National Army seemed unable to prevent it. At weddings, funerals and Friday prayers, local mullahs exhort their congregations to support the Taliban and oppose the government. The group pays newly recruited fighters roughly $200 a month, the pharmacist says—almost double the pay of police and Afghan National Army soldiers. According to one Maidan Shar police officer, intelligence estimates now place the insurgents' armed strength in the province at nearly 1,000 fighters.
The province's newly installed governor, Mohammad Halim Fidai, downplays the threat. "The insurgents don't have a place in the people's hearts," he says. "They are not strong here and can't threaten Kabul." Besides, he says, the Afghan National Army has just sent reinforcements to bolster security, especially at the insurgents' favorite ambush points along the highway. But rumors persist that the Taliban have set up car-bomb and suicide-belt factories in Maidan Wardak and neighboring Logar province, close to the capital.
Even the governor admits he's concerned about the "outsiders" who are joining the locals. Al Qaeda is now sending more fighters to Afghanistan, according to a senior Taliban commander who was recently interviewed by NEWSWEEK on the Afghan-Pakistan border but who declined to be named for security reasons. He says Al Qaeda's leaders agree with U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama that Afghanistan, not Iraq, is their central battleground against the West. "We are seeing more foreign fighters," the senior Western diplomat confirms. "They are Turks, Chechens, Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Pakistanis." And they're making the Taliban more dangerous. The foreigners are better equipped and trained than the locals, and they tend to stand and fight rather than disengage after the first exchange of gunfire, as Afghan insurgents generally do.
Students at Kabul University say they don't like the way the country is headed—and if they leave, Afghanistan's hopes for the future will depart with them. "I'm worried," says 20-year-old sociology student Khalid Dehati. "My father says personal security today is as bad as it was under the communist regime." Computer-science major Ali Arifi, 19, says he can't even visit his home village in Ghazni because the Taliban have taken the place over. "I want to stay to help my country," he says, "but all my friends want to leave." Science student Zulaikha Afzali, 21, isn't shy about saying she intends to leave the country when she graduates. "Afghanistan is, was, and will be insecure," she says. "I'm heading for Germany." Asked if they'll vote for Karzai in next year's presidential election, she and five friends blurt in unison: "No!"
Like the Iraqis, many Afghans have begun checking for escape routes, just in case. One American who heads a non-profit research group in the capital, asking not to be named, says Afghans on his staff have asked him to promise he'll get them out if security collapses. During the chaos of the 1980s and '90s, millions of Afghans streamed out of the country to camps in Pakistan and Iran. Both countries have now forcibly repatriated most Afghan refugees and closed their doors to new arrivals. One married 26-year-old Afghan who works in rural development says his father, a police brigadier, recently sat him down and advised him to start planning an exit strategy for his wife and their infant son. The young man can only shake his head: he doesn't know where they can go.
Some civilians aren't waiting around to see if things get worse. Shakeela Hashimi's 21-year-old son, Samir, has shut down his used-car dealership and is preparing to take his wife to Canada. He says there's too much crime and insecurity in Kabul. "Two years ago we had hope," he says. "Now we are losing it." The family is still mourning his 17-year-old sister, who was shot dead last year by an unknown assassin in the family's house. The Logar parliamentarian believes the bullet that killed her daughter was meant for her. Najib Ahmadzai, a Peshawar-based people smuggler, says his business tanked after the Taliban fell, but demand for his services has come back strong this year. It's hard for Afghans to get visas from most Western countries—and ironically enough, it's often easier for them to apply for asylum if they have no visas. Wardak says he's heard of people paying as much as $30,000 to be smuggled through Iran and Turkey to Europe.
Any route out will do. In May, Wardak led a nine-member delegation to Brussels for a series of meetings at NATO headquarters. But when it was time to go home, he says his colleagues told him they had all decided to stay in Europe, with or without formal asylum. He finally talked them out of their plan, he says, but it was a tough sell. In July, the only woman on Afghanistan's four-member Olympic team, 800-meter runner Mahbooba Ahadgar, disappeared from the team's training camp in Italy and reappeared in Norway, asking for political asylum.
Just as ominously for the country's future, Kabul's formerly bullish business investors are pulling out. "The decline in security has been steep in the past two months," says Hamidullah Farooqi, the chairman of Banke Millie Afghan. "It's getting bad." Street criminals are thriving. "The biggest problem the business community faces is the serious kidnapping threat from mafia-like criminal gangs," Farooqi says. "We've lost a couple of our friends to kidnappers, and others have lost their money and cars. They had no choice but to pick up and leave." Many of the country's richest executives are moving their cash to safety in Dubai, he says, like one Afghan businessman he knows who has invested $4 billion in various projects there. People in Kabul say roughly 20 percent of all real-estate purchases in Dubai last year were made by Afghans pulling their cash out of the country, and Farooqi says the estimate sounds right to him.
The public's sense of gloom only feeds on itself. Still, no one seems to know how to turn it around. The trend keeps looking worse, Farooqi warns. "We face a serious lack of security, corruption, crippling bureaucracy, bad government policies and bad government behavior," he says. "No wonder business is leaving." "Anything that affects hope is crucial," says the senior Western diplomat. Right now, the Taliban have cornered the market.