Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Nervous Afghan capital awaits “King David” Petraeus

July 2, 2010
Razor wire lies in front of Kabul's rocket-scarred Darulaman Palace. U.S. General David Petraeus arrived in Afghanistan on Friday to take command of American and NATO troops in the fight against the Taliban. Picture by author.

Razor wire lies in front of Kabul's rocket-scarred Darulaman Palace. U.S. General David Petraeus arrived in Afghanistan on Friday to take command of American and NATO troops in the fight against the Taliban. Picture by author.

As America’s “warrior scholar” General David Petraeus jets into Kabul to take command of the war against the Taliban, Afghan soldiers at the city’s ruined monument to past kings have little faith the growing insurgency can be turned, even in the capital.

Inside the RPG and bullet-ruined Darulaman Palace, southwest of the walled and sandbagged city centre, and in sight of the ranges of the Hindu Kush, half a dozen soldiers sat nervously out of reach of the afternoon sun beside a squat brick guard tower.

While the damage to the palace comes from wars past, the site overlooks a large military base, and is a stone’s throw from a crater marking where a suicide car bomber in May killed 18 people and injured 52 others in the deadliest attack this year on foreign troops.

“We feel uneasy, it is a strategic location,” Afghan National Army soldier Mohammad Edrees told Reuters, adding that if only a few Taliban fighters managed to get into the ruined palace, they would be almost impossible to find and kill.

“They will be able to hit the bases with rockets and we won’t be able kick them out even if we take heavy casualties. We are thinking of closing this place for visitors and have asked our commanders,” Edrees said. “Our commanders think we are cowards.”

The Darulaman Palace was built by King Amannullah in the 1920s and was heavily damaged during post-Soviet factional fighting in 1992 and looted.

In May’s attack down the road, the suicide bomber managed to evade dozens of checkpoints ringing the city — most carrying blue signs reading “ring of steel” — and drive an explosives-laden car onto the heavily used Darulaman road.

Six foreign soldiers died in the blast, among them five Americans, underscoring that the Taliban and allied insurgents can carry their attacks far beyond their southern strongholds, now in the cross-hairs of the Petraeus-led “surge”.

Only days before, the Taliban had promised its own offensive against NATO and U.S. troops, as well as Afghan government officials and foreign diplomats, in a kind of surge against the “surge”.

While that threat was overblown, the power of the insurgency to strike out at the government and foreign troops is evident, albeit rarely, even in central Kabul, where blast walls and sandbagged gun emplacements sit oddly beside the bustling traffic and markets of most elsewhere in southern Asia.

Despite the obvious armed fragility, President Hamid Karzai’s government has glittering plans to eventually restore the Darulaman Palace and use it as a seat for the country’s future parliament.

Few of the mostly young soldiers now nervously guarding the high ground expect to see that in their lifetimes.

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