KABUL (Reuters) - Prosecutors fleeing offices, girls at home after a bomb scare at their school, Indian bankers leaving Kabul until things calm down - a spike in high profile Taliban attacks has left officials and expatriates in the Afghan capital on edge.
The threat of militant violence is not new in the city of 3.5 million, which has never fully stabilized since the hardline Islamist Taliban regime was ousted in a U.S.-led war in 2001.
But a series of deadly raids on government employees and foreigners in the last month, after the exit of most NATO troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, has people worried about what the fighting season this year will bring and how effective the country’s security forces will be.
“The government is losing control in every aspect,” said Mohammad Arif Shaheem, a prosecutor who works in the city.
His colleague, Mehria Faiz, recalls a terrifying moment in May. Soon after a car bomb exploded in the parking lot of the Ministry of Justice, word spread at the attorney general’s office that three Taliban in burqas had entered the building.
“We fled and evacuated the building in minutes,” said Faiz.
She only comes to work twice a week now, and would leave her job if there were more attacks.
“I cannot work under such circumstances,” Faiz added.
Underlining residents’ jumpiness, a rumor at a girls’ school in central Kabul last week that insurgents had planted a bomb in a paint tin led to an evacuation, and some parents keeping their children home the following day.
Intensifying attacks have coincided with the Taliban insurgency’s annual “spring offensive”, which this year started on April 24. That was earlier than usual and so far attacks have been more potent and far-flung than in 2014.
After NATO’s withdrawal, it presents the biggest test yet for fledgling Afghan National Security Forces, trained at a cost of $60 billion to try to put down an insurgency aimed at toppling the pro-Western government in Kabul.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the first four months of the year saw a record high 2,937 civilian casualties nationwide, including 974 deaths, a 16 percent increase over the same period last year.
A May 31 report by a Western security consultant said Kabul had seen “a notable increase” in suicide bombings and general militant activity this year compared to the same period in 2014.
There have been at least six prominent attacks in the city in May, causing more than 100 casualties, including 19 deaths, a Reuters count shows. In 2014, the annual offensive started on May 12. There were at least two big attacks in Kabul that month.
NATO’s Gen. John Campbell, in charge of a reduced foreign force focusing on training and limited operations, said recently the number of “enemy-initiated” attacks across the country had fallen compared with the same period last year.
But the number of casualties was higher, implying strikes were more lethal, he said.
Afghan forces and the Taliban have both seen much higher casualties in fighting this year, according to U.S. officials.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said their casualties had decreased, while an Afghan defense ministry spokesman said the rise in Afghan forces’ casualties so far this year was nearer 3 to 3.5 percent.
Campbell said for every attack in Kabul, some 9 or 10 attempts were stopped every day.
Last Tuesday, Afghan security forces repelled the latest assault in the city, when four insurgents stormed a guesthouse in the diplomatic quarter. The government said no civilians were killed.
Other incidents did not end so happily.
In mid-May, Park Palace, another guesthouse, was attacked, leaving at least 14 dead, including eight foreigners.
Kabul Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi said the attack was carried out by one person who had checked into the hotel in the days before. The investigation is ongoing.
A foreign embassy official who visited the hotel after the incident said the gunman appeared to have started the killings in the dining area and then moved room-to-room, kicking in plywood doors and shooting guests.
Additional reporting by Jessica Donati; Editing by Mike Collett-White