February Is A Violent Month In Afghanistan

Skirmishes and landmines in the south and east of Afghanistan claim a near daily toll of Afghan and foreign soldiers. The past several weeks, however, have seen a raft of attacks inside cities, including the capital. How does the surge in violence square with U.S. Military assertions of progress on security?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This has been a violent month in Afghanistan. Skirmishes and landmines in the south and east of the country claim a near daily toll of Afghan and NATO soldiers. And the past several weeks have seen a raft of attacks inside cities, including the capital. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Kabul on what's behind the surge in violence and whether it squares with U.S. military claims that the country is becoming more secure.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Footage from a security camera transfixed Afghans this week, graphically depicting one of the bloodiest Taliban attacks since the U.S. invasion nine years ago.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: A local TV newscaster narrated the video from the eastern city of Jalalabad on Saturday when a group of suicide bombers rushed into a bank building.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

LAWRENCE: A gunman, wearing what appears to be an Afghan army uniform, waves civilians toward him and then shoots them with an assault rifle from only inches away. Women and children cower on the floor as he stops to reload and continues. Forty people died.

It was the worst of a recent wave that ended a long calm in major cities, including Kabul, where last month, a suicide bomber killed 14, including an entire family with children in an upscale supermarket. Two weeks ago Taliban fighters seized a building in the center of Kandahar and rained grenades and gunfire down on the main police station and an adjacent school. Another suicide attack killed dozens in the northern city of Kunduz.

Admiral GREG SMITH (NATO): What has happened the last couple of weeks was almost to be expected. Regrettably, almost all the loss of life has been to civilians.

LAWRENCE: Rear Admiral Greg Smith, of the NATO force here in Kabul, says the surge of U.S. troops last summer has degraded insurgent networks and driven them to attack softer, mainly civilian targets.

Admiral SMITH: The insurgent groups recognize that they're going to have to create the sense of insecurity since they physically can't do the same they did the year before, with large numbers of the forces penetrating the urban areas and controlling large swathes of population directly. They need to do it more indirectly with these attacks.

LAWRENCE: Afghan forces arrested one of the attackers at the bank in Jalalabad before he could detonate his explosive vest. The young man told police he was trained in Pakistan, which touches on a different theory about the recent violence.

A former Afghan security official, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, blames a crisis in relations between Pakistan and the U.S. The former official said that Pakistan's intelligence service is trying to show the Americans that they can, quote, "make Afghanistan hell" if the Americans try to sideline Pakistan.

Whatever the reason for the spike in attacks, Kabul is shaken, says Ahmad Jawed, a clothing salesman at the Kabul City Center Mall. The mall is still clearing up after a suicide attack here two weeks ago.

Mr. AHMAD JAWED: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: We don't feel safe in here, he says, mentioning the two guards who died preventing the bomber from getting inside the building. In fact, the mall security worked. The guards have been called heroes for keeping the bomber from killing many more people.

Mr. JAWED: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: But Jawed doesn't see many customers these days. He says they must have the same feeling he does - that the insurgents can attack now, anywhere, anytime they want.

Quil Lawrence, NPR news,�Kabul.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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