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Afghanistan Sees Uptick in ‘Targeted Violence’ as Bombs Kill More Than 20

October 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
A suicide bomber blew up a checkpoint Monday in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and then three gunmen seized control of a building near the United Nations refugee office. Ray Suarez discusses the latest attacks on high-profile targets and concerns over the Afghan government's stability with Rod Norland of The New York Times.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on all this, I spoke to Rod Nordland of The New York Times, who is in Kabul.

Rod Nordland, welcome to the program.

What have you been able to find out from your reporting that explains this upsurge in lethal violence?

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: Well it’s not so much an upsurge in lethal violence, as it is an upsurge in very — very carefully targeted violence against much more high-profile targets maybe than they have hit in the past, and more against targets that are American or NATO or otherwise connected with the foreign operation here.

RAY SUAREZ: Does what you have been able to find out about both the method and the materials used point to any source?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, everything points to the Haqqani Network, which is a group of Taliban allies based in Pakistan, very closely built around a family clan that, at one time, in fact, was financed by the United States in the war against is Soviets.

They since have proven to be our worst enemy here and also the most effective enemy.

RAY SUAREZ: How is the Haqqani Network different from the Taliban?

ROD NORDLAND: They’re better organized. They’re more competent. When they launch an attack, they’re much better trained. They will do — typically do very complex attacks with multiple fighters who are very heavily armed and well-disciplined. We saw that again today in Kandahar, although they weren’t very successful, fortunately.

They did kill some U.N. employees in front — who were attendants in front of the building. But they have come very close on several occasions to something that could be a very near disaster and what I’m sure they hope would be a game-changing disaster.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary of State Clinton just left Pakistan after asking the Pakistani government to get tougher on the Haqqani Network. What do these attacks say about the success or failure of the secretary of state’s efforts?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, a lot of people see the attack on Saturday when 13 people, mostly Americans, were killed, plus four Afghans, a lot of people see that as a message to the Americans and a response to Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan and to — particularly to the pressure she’s trying to put on them about the Haqqani Network and the bases that they have inside of Pakistan.

RAY SUAREZ: And what does it say about the Pakistani government’s response? Are they trying to keep the Haqqanis on a leash?

ROD NORDLAND: I don’t think it is so much of a leash, as it is a kind of permissive kennel that they can operate out of, someplace to stay warm and get out of the rain when they need to and marshal their forces.

The Pakistanis have tried to do something about that in the past. They lost 700 soldiers trying to do it and failed miserably. And instead they have a kind of modus vivendi with them now, and perhaps something much more. A lot of people believe that their intelligence services are very closely linked with Haqqani Network and get them to do some of their bidding.

But it’s not so much that they directly, completely control them, as they give them a safe harbor.

RAY SUAREZ: What do these attacks tell you about the relative strength of these groups? Have they been weakened in the south, as some NATO commanders are saying? Does it mean that they’re stronger in places like Kabul?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, they have definitely been weakened in the south. And they told less ground in many parts of the country.

And one of the responses has been to shift their tactics and to use what firepower they have more effectively and less indiscriminately, and worry less about trying to hold territory and more about trying to get targets that have maximum impact.

And the impact they’re looking for is probably, above all else, media impact, things that get a lot of publicity. They know very well, if they were able to kill enough Americans or other NATO forces, that that could very well change the support back home for this conflict. And that’s what they’re about doing.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned the targeting of foreign troops. What’s the relationship, if any, between these attacks and the announced timetable of U.S. withdrawal, the beginning of the drawdown of the surge force?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, I think a lot of people would say that that encourages them to try to have one of these spectacular hits that can maybe push that timetable along a little faster.

They don’t have to worry about holding ground so much, because they know that, you know, once — or they feel, anyway, that once the Americans leave, they will be able to take all the ground they want to, without the sort of casualties and difficulties that they have had here.

But, I mean, they may be, you know, overestimating just how effective that would be, too.

RAY SUAREZ: Has ISAF or the United States spoken publicly since these attacks? Have they reflected on what they have been saying lately about the situation improving and victory being just around the corner?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, they are constantly saying things are improving, that things are getting better all the time, that there are fewer incidents.

I mean, even their numbers, though, are disputed by a lot of people here. I mean, the U.N.’s numbers say that things are getting worse in terms of the frequency of attacks and the number of IEDs, and, of course, the civilian casualties as well. They say their — they say, by their numbers, things are getting better.

I think most people here don’t buy that. And certainly the feeling among Afghans is that things are much more difficult now than they were. Plus, an awful lot of people are looking at 2014 and thinking, what are we going to do then, and, you know, what is our game plan going to be once the Americans leave?

Nobody has a great deal of confidence in the Afghan government to be able to stand on its own.

RAY SUAREZ: Rod Nordland of The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

ROD NORDLAND: Thanks a lot.