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Roads Near Kabul Grow Dangerous
Associated Press  |  October 17, 2007
HIGHWAY 1, Afghanistan - "Take off your sunglasses and put this around your head," my Afghan colleague said, apprehension in his voice as he handed me a checkered scarf. It was a sure sign our road trip was entering Taliban territory.

A moment later our taxi passed two bomb-blast craters in the road, then a burned-out semi-truck lying on its side.

"See, it is not safe, this area," my colleague Amir Shah said, one hand on the steering wheel, one pointing at the wreckage.

But our journey was not through the wild mountains of eastern Afghanistan, nor past the poppy fields of Helmand province, the Taliban insurgency's flashpoint this year.

We were driving only 45 miles south of the capital, Kabul, on Highway 1, Afghanistan's main thoroughfare. Later that night gunmen fired machine guns on worshippers praying at a mosque we drove by, killing two and wounding 12.

I have been in Afghanistan for more than a year, so I'm familiar with the dangers of overland travel. But those signs of recent bombings were an eye-opener - even to a veteran like Associated Press reporter Amir Shah.

It showed that travel, even on the country's main road an hour outside the capital, is now a risky affair.

Reporters in Kabul increasingly complain they can no longer safely travel by road to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, as they could the first several years after the Taliban's ouster in 2001. Now the danger seems to be migrating north.

American and Afghan military officials say part of the reason is that military operations in Helmand, Kandahar and Ghazni provinces are squeezing insurgents out of those southern regions.

"I don't think they'll try to come closer to Kabul," said Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi, the Defense Ministry spokesman. "It's only from the pressure of the security forces that made them move into Wardak."

In the mid-1990s, the Taliban moved north from their southern power base to take control of Kabul. Though Taliban leader Mullah Omar would like to repeat that bit of history, it won't happen with 50,000 international troops here.

The U.S. is building a new forward operating base in Wardak, which borders Kabul to the west, where on Sunday an estimated 50 to 75 Taliban insurgents ambushed a patrol of U.S. Soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, wounding 12 82nd Airborne paratroopers.

"These guys knew what they were doing. These guys were trained," Staff Sgt. Stephen Edging told an embedded reporter from The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer.

Just two or three years ago, a trip to Wardak province was regarded as relatively safe. But Taliban fighters have moved into the area this year through the cover that ethnic Pashtun communities provide, from southern Kandahar province north through Zabul and Ghazni provinces. The Taliban are primarily ethnic Pashtun.

It's in this region - Ghazni and Wardak - that 23 South Koreans and two Germans were kidnapped in July. Private truck drivers have faced an increasing number of ambushes on Highway 1, but those attacks cost poor Afghans, too.

The World Food Program has seen 35 of its trucks attacked in the last two years - with 30 ambushes this year alone, said Rick Corsino, WFP country director. The attacks wasted 1,000 tons of wheat, vegetable oil and beans intended for Afghan villages.

"More recently we've seen some attacks in the places you've been describing, in Maydan Shah in Wardak and in Ghazni, all since the beginning of August," Corsino said.

My trip with Amir Shah last week took us to Ghazni city, where President Hamid Karzai named a new governor last month who was raised in the province and appears to have the respect of the people.

Some 50 insurgents already have turned in their weapons to Gov. Faizanullah Faizan, and he thinks even more fighters can be persuaded to join the government in a region now known for the kidnappings of the South Koreans.

Fighter Abdul Manan Akmal said he and 25 of his men turned in their weapons because "it's cruel to the nation to fight," but also because of the governor's reputation as a hero of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s.

"The governor gave me this idea to reconcile and the governor helped us come over," Akmal said.

Akmal denied that he or his fighters are Taliban, and the crew did turn in 24 AK-47 assault rifles and two rocket-propelled grenades to the government.

Faizan said he knows why so many fighters have joined the government so early into his term. Faizan is from Ghazni, unlike his predecessor, a foreign-educated Afghan who has moved back to the United States.

"He was from (the northeastern province of) Kunar. He was shaved. I have a beard. He wore trousers and a suit jacket. I wear traditional Afghan clothing. I have been in Ghazni all my life. I was born here. I've never been to Europe. I've never been to America," Faizan said, listing the credentials that earn him the villagers' respect.

Faizan said he traveled to the Andar district of Ghazni province - a notorious Taliban stronghold - this month, and that hundreds of people came to see him. He said it was important that Karzai pay attention to his governors' backgrounds.

As violence moves north toward the capital, it's become increasingly important that foreigners pay attention to their own backgrounds. The Interior Ministry this year told foreigners they couldn't leave Kabul without the ministry's permission because travel outside Kabul is becoming too dangerous.

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