KABUL // Every evening the images are replayed on TV: clouds of smoke billowing into the sky, police heading towards the chaos, a man fleeing in panic from an imminent explosion. Last week's co-ordinated assault on Kabul by a group of insurgents left a handful of people dead and about 70 injured. Since then the government has made a concerted public relations effort across the airwaves to show the efficiency of local security forces and the brutality of the Taliban.
It is a version of events many of the capital's residents do not believe. What they saw for a few hours that day was a key part of the city out of control, burning with anger and fear. "I am very worried. You know in Afghanistan we have big families with a lot of children, so we don't have the money to run away to another country or start our businesses again," says Haji Malang. "We are just hoping for a better situation."
Mr Malang worked in a shopping centre that was the main battleground during the attack. It is now a charred carcass of a building. Watches and antique coins are scattered about, covered in ashes. Clothes and teapots lie abandoned. Much of the damage was done, insist witnesses, by government forces that opened fire using heavy weapons when a more subtle approach was needed to get at the insurgents hiding inside.
Shopkeepers also give some credit to the rebels for allowing them to leave the centre unharmed before the fighting really began. In the end, only one of their colleagues was killed. He stayed behind and hid while the others escaped and there is confusion over who exactly shot him. "Those Taliban who are Afghans are never happy to kill their brothers," said Gulham Ahmad Qazizada, the representative of the store owners.
The assault on Kabul occurred in a part of the city that includes the presidential palace and is subject to round-the-clock guard. A suicide bomber detonated himself in front of a bank, then insurgents entered the shopping centre nearby. Further attacks targeted the luxury Serena Hotel and other government buildings. Explosions and gunfire continued for approximately five hours before the capital was declared under control again. By the end of the fighting, seven rebels, two civilians and three security personnel had lost their lives.
The head of US and Nato troops in the country, Gen Stanley McChrystal, soon praised Afghan forces, saying they "dealt with the situation and should be commended". Richard Holbrooke, the US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, announced: "It's not surprising that the Taliban do this sort of thing. They are desperate people, they are ruthless." Publicly there has been notable reluctance from officials to question how a small number of insurgents could cause such havoc. Instead, the government in Kabul and its foreign allies have been trying to turn the events of January 18 into a success story.
With a major international conference on Afghanistan due to begin in London today, there is a growing desire to show that local security forces are clearly improving and will soon be able to lead operations in large parts of the country. However, one senior government official here was less than enthusiastic. Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the nature of his comments, he said, "Two, three, four years ago we did not have this kind of assault on the city.
"When a few terrorists can come close to the city, to the heart of Kabul, the presidential palace, and start an assault and wound more than 65 people and burn a big building, it's bad in my opinion". The London conference is expected to set a timetable for a handover of security to the Afghan government. Places will be transferred gradually, beginning with some of the more stable provinces this year.
But much will depend on conditions at ground level and even here in the capital there are no guarantees of improvements. Extra police have recently been deployed throughout the city, yet on Tuesday a suicide bomber still got through, wounding at least six civilians and lightly injuring eight US soldiers near a military base. Najiba Sharif, a Kabul MP, said last week's raid showed the Karzai administration was still unable to protect its citizens.
"Security is awful. Nobody is safe and they do not agree with the government," she said. "They block all the roads, have a lot of police checkpoints and carry out a lot of searches, but they cannot prevent these attacks." @Email:email@example.com