Eroding security puts Afghan on higher alert

MAZAR-I-SHARIF BASE: “The situation is getting more dangerous,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jorst Fohmann at a base of about 1,400 German soldiers at Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

“We have more attacks. We have a more difficult situation when it comes to freedom of movement,” said the German officer.

This region is reputed to be far calmer than the southern provinces where the extremist Taleban carry out most of their attacks.

But incidents have multiplied even here over the past year and now it is out of the question for German soldiers to go near Mazar-i-Sharif’s famous Blue Mosque, in the centre of the city.

The only excursions that are permitted have to be for operational duties. And they are always done in armoured vehicles.

Here the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is on high alert – as it is everywhere else in the rugged country.

And the threat will not be helped by a call last week by Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden for Europe to end its involvement in Afghanistan on the side of the United States, which led the 2001 invasion that overthrew the Taleban regime.

A former member of the German Special Forces, Fohmann can see a marked deterioration in security compared with his previous mission three years ago to the town of Kunduz, near the border with Uzbekistan.

“Kunduz was very pro towards ISAF’s mandate, in particular, the Germans were very accepted there,” he said. The goodwill was a legacy of the days when hippies wandered into Afghanistan to sample its cannabis.

But everything changed in May when three German soldiers were killed in a busy market by a suicide bomber. Six Afghans also died and Afghan security forces say there have been many other threats since then.

Now, “Kunduz city downtown – if there is no need to go, we are not going there,” the German officer said.

From where does the threat come? It is not just Taleban and other insurgents but “all movements that can take advantage of disorder and do not want stability,” he said, pointing mainly to “criminals and drugs traffickers.”

“Even main supply routes are used by criminals, who do not want to be stopped by the police and security forces,” he says. “They are probably trying to show us that we are in their country and that they can do what they like.”

The Afghan capital, Kabul, several hundred kilometres (miles) south has in the past weeks seen a surge in violence with several attacks in and around the city.

One on Wednesday saw a suicide attacker slam an explosives-filled car into an Afghan army bus, killing around 16 people.

The attack came as US Defence Secretary Roberts Gates wrapped up a surprise visit during which he called on the country’s allies to redouble efforts to help Afghanistan face the tide of extremism.

Gates and President Hamid Karzai both said after talks that violence had increased this year.

“Our enemy here is hardened and resilient, they will not go away easily and – as we were reminded last week by Osama bin Laden’s message to Europe – our enemies are counting on us to lose our resolve,” Gates told reporters.

There have been a record more than 140 suicide attacks in Afghanistan this year, including the worst-ever in the country which killed nearly 80 people in Baghlan, a province in the north that has seen little Taleban activity.

Most blasts are targeted at the Afghan security forces or roughly 60,000 foreign troops here, but they mostly kill civilians.

A French lieutenant who heads a convoy that has to cross Kabul recalls that in 2003 such trips were done in uncovered trucks.

Today, he says, the soldiers move in quickly in light armoured vehicles and strapped into bulletproof vests and helmets. And if a civilian vehicle comes too close and ignores warnings to halt, they shoot.

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