Page last updated at 06:20 GMT, Wednesday, 20 August 2008 07:20 UK

Taleban grow more brazen

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Kabul's early morning silence was broken on Monday night first by the crunch of rockets exploding in the city, then by the emergency sirens at Nato headquarters warning the officers and generals to head for the shelters.

French troops in Afghanistan (archive image from 2006)
France recently took command of the Isaf mission around Kabul

It was a vivid and eerie soundtrack of how close the insurgency is to the capital.

The second rocket attack in Kabul in less than a week will further feed the paranoia of Afghans and also the international community.

But that paranoia may not be misplaced - while the sirens were warning of incoming fire, French forces were fighting for their lives just 50km (31 miles) away.

They had been ambushed on Monday afternoon as they patrolled through Sarobi district in Kabul province, and despite sending in reinforcements, medical teams and attack aircraft, they lost 10 soldiers - another 21 were injured.

Significant impact

It is one of the largest losses of life in Nato's Afghan campaign and a huge blow to a French deployment which is already unpopular at home.

There are reports of 100 insurgents attacking the convoy, of troops being captured and then killed.

What happened in that valley could have a significant impact on the French mission, so much so that President Nicolas Sarkozy is flying straight to Kabul to settle nerves and offer support.

And it was not the only major operation launched by the Taleban in one night.

French soldier in Afghanistan
France's deployment is unpopular at home

In Khost, south-eastern Afghanistan, up to 30 militants tried to storm the main American base in the town, just hours after a suicide car bomber had struck at the front gate killing 10 civilians working at Camp Salerno.

Among those insurgents were at least half a dozen suicide bombers, trying to break into the camp and kill as many Nato soldiers as possible.

The attack was repelled and, as in Serobi, many of the Taleban were killed or injured, but there appears to be plenty of others ready to pick up their guns, or strap on explosives vests, and take on a much better equipped and more highly trained army.

The tactics are becoming more advanced and more brazen - it is as if the insurgents are gathering momentum in the growing insecurity and instability.

Threatened attack

On Monday, which was Afghanistan's Independence Day, much of Kabul was sealed off by thousands of extra police drafted in when the Taleban announced they were planning a major attack.

Kabul had the appearance of a city under siege - exactly what the terror tactics of the insurgents hoped to achieve

The streets were empty, armoured cars stood guard at junctions, international workers were locked down and told to stay indoors, but the threat remained just a threat and it provoked quite a reaction.

Kabul had the appearance of a city under siege - exactly what the terror tactics of the insurgents hoped to achieve.

The aid community in Kabul has already been shaken by the murder of three foreign women who worked for the International Rescue Committee.

They and their Afghan driver were killed last week in an ambush as they drove through Logar province, which neighbours Kabul to the south.

The other road to the south-west, which is the main highway around the country, is potholed with the craters of roadside bombs and littered with vehicles like fuel trucks ambushed and burned.

Humanitarian workers are having a long, hard think about where they can and cannot operate and whether they should even be in Afghanistan any more.

Stronger insurgency

It is another seemingly deliberate tactic in an insurgency which is creeping in on Kabul, squeezing efforts to develop and rebuild the country and exposing a vacuum where the government's grip of the country is slipping.

Widespread corruption and insecurity is allowing perhaps only a small number of insurgents to give the impression they are more powerful then they really are.

The paranoia, the fear and the lack of faith in the government are all in the minds of the people - but that is where insurgency campaigns are won or lost.

Shortly after the all-clear siren sounded at Isaf headquarters in Kabul on Tuesday night, the air was again broken by the morning's first call to prayer.

Afghanistan is a deeply conservative, religious and traditional country whose people have seen foreigners come and then go, often after bloodshed.

The war is not lost, but the strength of the insurgents is seen as being stronger now than it has been since the Taleban were driven from power.

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