DARBISHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s government and foreign troops should prepare for the Taliban to step up urban suicide attacks and assassinations as they shift tactics to “very focused” terrorism, the U.S. ambassador said.
Karl Eikenberry told Reuters in an interview that three insurgent attacks in just four days pointed to a change in strategy following setbacks against international and Afghan security forces.
“Our sense is that in the course of the spring and the summer that we could see continued suicide attacks, perhaps at a higher level than we saw last year,” Eikenberry said on his aircraft during a fleeting visit to restive Kandahar province.
“It seems to us now that they can’t hold forces in the field and they can’t fight head-on. They have shifted and they have begun now a very focused terrorist campaign.”
An insurgent strike on Monday killed two people in the Afghan Defense Ministry in the third attack on supposedly high-security installations in just four days.
On Friday, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform killed Gen. Khan Mohammed Mujahid, the Kandahar police chief, while another uniformed suicide bomber on Saturday killed five NATO service members in one of the worst attacks in months.
Insurgents have long targeted powerful leaders, with Mujahid the third Kandahar police chief assassinated since 2005, but there is widespread concern that in the face of pressure from tough U.S. “surge” troops these killings will increase.
Eikenberry, a former U.S. general, visited Kandahar city on Monday for private talks with provincial governor Tooryalai Wesa in the wake of the police chief’s killing, as well as visiting U.S. special forces soldiers and local leaders in the strategically vital district of Khakrez, to the northwest.
The area and its overshadowing Masoud mountain range was once a Taliban stronghold and is still a vital insurgent supply route, or “rat run,” but Eikenberry and U.S. commanders say district security has improved sharply in the last year.
Eikenberry went without body armor and jumped on an open special forces buggy with a minimal escort to visit a newly built girls’ school and bazaar in Darbishan village, where the turquoise dome of Afghanistan’s third holiest shrine glimmered against the crags behind.
But U.S. troops admit the relationship with around 2,500 local people is still fragile, with many having close ties and even extended family bonds with the Taliban.
Much of the area, including shops and the Sufi shrine of Shah Maqsood Agha, was also shattered by U.S. air strikes in 2001 as American troops tried to drive out the Taliban and al Qaeda fighters, prompting an intensive rebuild.
“There are no hard-core Taliban here any more. But they are still unsure about us. They are still not sure how long we are going to stay and if the Taliban will come back,” said one special forces soldier who could not be named.
To improve the relationship, the special forces command in Kandahar has just extended rotation of elite troops from six months to a year, to better solidify ties with local elders.
“The focus is on relationships. That’s the most important counter-intelligence strategy,” a senior officer told Reuters in the marble courtyard of the shrine.
Eikenberry, in a flurry of shura meetings with local people in Khakrez and Kandahar, heard pleas for new schools, teachers and health clinics, but also worries about security after a transition to fully Afghan security in 2014.
“There is uncertainty throughout Afghanistan. On one hand there is a sense of pride that goes with transition, but at the same time there is a sense of apprehension,” Eikenberry said.
Governor Wesa said Kandahar had been through bad periods before many times, including the January assassination of Deputy Governor Abdul Latif Ashna, and the government was resilient enough to recover from Mujahid’s slaying.
“The opposition are trying as hard to disturb the security as we are trying to build security. There will be tough days, but we will be okay,” Wesa said.
Eikenberry said the use of uniformed suicide bombers was a tactic that would be hard but not impossible to combat. NATO has said it is training intelligence officers specifically to search out possible infiltrators and Taliban sympathizers.
“That’s a tactic that’s designed to lower the trust of the Afghan people and their security forces, an effort to break down the trust within the forces themselves,” he said.
“It does represent a very serious threat and the Afghan security need to ensure that their vetting processes, their recruiting are rigorous and that their counter-intelligence within the forces is effective.”
Editing by Nick Macfie