KABUL // Two suicide bomb attacks in as many months on shoppers in Kabul, after a seven-month lull in serious violence in the city, have raised fears that insurgents are bolstering their strongholds on the outskirts of the capital.
On Monday a suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance of the Kabul City Centre shopping mall killing three people. The bomber was stopped by two private security guards manning the entrance of the compound that also houses the four-star Safi Landmark hotel. Both security guards were killed.
On January 28 another suicide bomber killed at least nine people in a Kabul supermarket frequented by foreigners and wealthy Afghans. The Taliban took responsibility for both attacks.
Since November at least 20 people have been killed in suicide attacks in Kabul. Western officials working with Afghan security forces say this is most likely because insurgents have been allowed to hunker down in areas close to the capital with direct supply lines to Pakistan.
Mussahi, a 116-square-kilometre valley of farming villages about 19km south-east of Kabul, is at the top of the list of locations within Kabul province that have a worrisome insurgent presence, intelligence analysts say.
"We talk about the insurgency being completely outside of Kabul, or even as far away as Pakistan," one western intelligence official said. "And that is partly true. Kabul is relatively safe. But the insurgency is among us, their fighters are everywhere - and they've been here for a long time."
There are other areas of Kabul province - Char Asiab, Khak-i-Jabar and Sarobi, for example - where Taliban influence has ebbed and flowed for years, and the insurgent presence in Mussahi is nothing new. But the recent increase in Kabul attacks is putting these areas back under the intelligence spotlight.
Security analysts say they are unable to predict whether or not Kabul will see a continued rise in attacks, but that Mussahi's role as bastion of Kabul-area insurgency is expected to strengthen. "If you leave Mussahi alone, it will just get worse, for Mussahi and for Kabul," the intelligence official said. "Right now, the rule of law stops at Kabul. If you can't control Kabul, you can't control the country."
It is unclear whether the two most recent Kabul attacks were planned from Mussahi. The National Directorate of Security announced last week that a prisoner at Pul-i-Charki prison, in neighbouring Parwan province, arranged the January supermarket bombing.
The Kabul Attack Network, as Nato forces call an association of insurgents from various anti-government groups, is believed to have launched a number of attacks from Mussahi. It has strong links to the district, officials say.
Another western intelligence official said: "The job of Afghan forces is about denying the inner city [to] the insurgency. But Mussahi is the gateway for the insurgency into Kabul. They use it for weapons storage, combat training, reconnaissance, surveillance - almost everything. It's a real problem."
Nato and Afghan forces have been fighting a formidable Taliban-led insurgency in recent years. Last year was the deadliest for both soldiers and civilians since the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban government in 2001.
US General David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, recently said violence is likely to increase in 2011 across Afghanistan. There are about 132,000 foreign troops in the country, about two thirds of them from the United States.
Kabul has been largely spared the rising violence elsewhere in the country, though there have been sporadic co-ordinated attacks on the United Nations and other targets such as hotels and shopping malls over the years. Kabul has been one of the only places where the Afghan government has boasted of having nearly complete control.
But in Mussahi, even US forces refrain from patrolling on foot or in armoured vehicles because of the high level of danger, soldiers at Nato's Camp Phoenix in Kabul say. The road into the district centre is heavily mined, and almost all Nato operations are done solely with air strikes.
Intelligence officials say nine government employees, including senior officers, have been assassinated in Mussahi since November. The number could not be independently confirmed.
A US official working with Afghan security forces, said: "They [the insurgents] have barricaded the village, and a landmine will go off as soon as a vehicle turns onto the main road, It's an early warning system. The Taliban will either leave or fight, but they know you're coming."
Government statistics on Mussahi are hard to come by, but officials interviewed said Afghanistan's ministry of economy classifies the district as "very poor". A United Nations profile of the district in 2002 put the local population at 30,000, most of them Pashtun with a small Tajik minority.