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Kabul comes undone

By Henry Schuster

Editor's note: Henry Schuster, a senior producer in CNN's Investigative Unit and author of "Hunting Eric Rudolph," has been covering terrorism for more than a decade. Each week in "Tracking Terror," he reports on people and organizations driving international and domestic terrorism, and efforts to combat them.
A man hurls a rock at a Western military vehicle on Monday.



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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- One day you're shopping in Kabul's famous Chicken Street; the next you're in a locked down military base listening to gunfire ripple across the city.

Welcome to Kabul. Welcome to Afghanistan.

This was supposed to be the war that was over and done with -- the one that successfully toppled the Taliban and sent al Qaeda running across the border into Pakistan.

Only the Taliban never completely went away, at least in regions of southern Afghanistan such as the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan. No less than the senior American military commander, Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, said that the Taliban are stronger now in some of those districts than they were a year ago.

Kabul was always the one place in fairly good shape. It certainly seemed that way when we went to the market last week. From goat shanks to potatoes and tomatoes, food is available, plentiful and cheap. Trips around the city revealed it has changed for the better since I was here three years ago.

Bigger, noisier, more prosperous. That is certainly an improvement over its previous extreme poverty and war damage.

Of course, development is relative: Kabul streets are still lined with deep trenches that carry raw sewage, with a smell that induces gagging when the temperature soars.

Chicken Street, the favorite place for Westerners in search of good deals on rugs and gemstones, has also undergone somewhat of a makeover, with new jewelry shops inside gleaming glass and chrome storefronts.

Targeting Westerners

But a few days after our visit to Chicken Street, we were climbing over furniture and rubble inside the compound belonging to CARE, the international aid group.

CARE staffer Paul Barker, who's been in Afghanistan for eight years, can't remember a day as bad as Monday, when a U.S. military truck crash sparked deadly riots. It was even worse, he said, than the time the Taliban were fleeing Kabul almost five years ago.

After the crash, more than 100 young men knocked through the front gate of CARE's compound, which has only minimal security, and began trashing and looting.

A safe inside shows signs of whacks from a crowbar. Barker said when the men couldn't open it, they started to tear the place apart.

They were even about to throw a young child into a fire they had set in the courtyard because they thought her fair complexion meant she was Western, he said. It was only when she began speaking in Dari and they realized she was Afghan that they let her go.

At least one part of the compound was still smoldering days after the riots. Still, Barker said, CARE is already back in business.

Because CARE has so many school building projects under way in the country, he feels confident the headquarters will be rebuilt within three months, provided CARE can come up with the money.

Barker doesn't think demonstrators targeted CARE in particular. Instead, he believes they were looking for Western targets -- some of them to vent frustration, others to commit crimes.

Illusion crushed

With that one traffic accident, the city seemed to come undone. The U.S. military truck that crashed into a dozen Afghan vehicles smashed more than cars.
A young man cycles past a police post set on fire.

It also crushed the illusion that Kabul is relatively stable. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sometimes been derided as "the mayor of Kabul" which, some say, underlines the weakness of his government in other parts of Afghanistan.

We were at Camp Eggers, the main U.S. military base in Kabul, attending a Memorial Day ceremony when we became aware of the trouble.

Moments after the wreath-laying ceremony and ceremonial gunfire, we began to hear noises from beyond the gates.

For several hours, we heard gunfire, coming from around the city. In the distance, we saw a column of smoke rising as rioters burned police cars and stormed compounds, including the one belonging to CARE.

Just who was responsible remains the question. As the Afghan army patrolled the streets, everyone seemed to be catching their breath.

Was the response to the accident whipped to a frenzy by agitators, as President Karzai and coalition military officials charged? Or was this a spontaneous outburst from Afghans fed up at the American and Western presence, especially angry that civilians have been killed during attacks on the Taliban?

Re-naming the enemy

Our reason for coming to Afghanistan was to see if it was becoming another Iraq. What we didn't expect to hear as soon as we landed was a phrase that seemed to be on the lips of many American military officers.

"What we're fighting here is an insurgency," they kept saying. From Gen. Eikenberry down the chain of command, that was the message.

Fighting a counter-insurgency campaign, they emphasized, is going to be a long process. Translation: Don't expect Americans or NATO, which will soon be running the security operations here, to be leaving anytime soon.

For the moment, both the United States and NATO are trying to figure out what, if any, links exist between this insurgency and the recent trouble in Kabul.

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