KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Getting around in some parts of central Kabul is like driving inside trenches: two lanes of road between high walls made of modern versions of sandbags referred to by their brand name: "Hesco barriers." They consist of 4-foot-tall wire mesh containers lined with heavy plastic and filled with sand, gravel or dirt, all topped by concertina wire. Other streets have classic sandbag structures, high walls and/or concrete-like barricades. Every dozen yards along the roads are heavily armed guards -- dead serious, with sunglasses, earpieces and legs menacingly spread. Security and protection are top priority here. Or are they?
Sunday's failed assassination attempt here against Afghan President Hamid Karzai was not the first one, but it was the gutsiest so far. The Taliban claimed responsibility, and its leader said that it was to show that it could carry out an attack anywhere in Afghanistan. Coming four months after the deadly assault on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, an attack also claimed by the Taliban, it shows that far from being defeated, the Taliban is gaining ground.
According to the U.S. State Department's 2007 "Country Reports on Terrorism," "the Taliban-led insurgency remained a capable, determined and resilient threat to stability and to the expansion of government authority." The State Department report mentioned that "insurgents also targeted international NGOs, U.N. workers and recipients of NGO assistance." Those of us who work for nongovernmental organizations here have seen it coming. In the first three months of 2008, according to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, there were 11 fatalities among NGO workers; in all of 2007, there were a total of 15.
The maps of "accessibility" for U.N. programs produced by one of the international organizations here are steadily changing color: the green patches (meaning "permissive environment") around the main towns and roads are shrinking and giving way to yellow ("volatile") or a uniform red ("extreme risk/hostile environment") as if they were autumn leaves.
For those of us at the International Rescue Committee, the increase in incidents targeting the NGOs is particularly alarming in the province of Khost, in the southeastern corner on the Pakistan border (as of mid-March it was half-red, half-yellow). We are debating how -- and if -- we can continue working there.
Late last year, our staff in Khost -- all Afghans -- found in the local mosque so-called night letters, written threats left anonymously that specifically referred to a community-based development program funded mostly by the World Bank through the Afghan government and implemented in great part by international NGOs: "Reject all of the assistance coming from the National Solidarity Program and don't accept their solar panels because through this honey they will give you poison. ... Those from your community who participate in this infidel solidarity ... if you act against Islam or speak against the Taliban ... hell is your place."
Then we suffered two attacks -- in March and April -- in two districts of Khost. We were told that about 50 to 60 attackers came and ransacked the office. Our premises, files and computers were set on fire. Nobody was hurt, but our working capacity was damaged.
The message was clear: We do not want you here.
This is puzzling because we have a solid reputation in Afghanistan, having operated here over the last 20 years -- when the country was ruled by the communists, then by the mujahedin, then by the Taliban. Our work to support the people continues under the Karzai administration.
After the 2002 intervention of the multinational coalition to oust the Taliban, everyone was on the same side in Afghanistan. The urgent task was to support the Afghan people in a newly reborn state.
But nowadays, the armed opposition groups are able to strike where and when they want, and they score points when they do it live on television. Since they oppose the current government, they also oppose those who work with it. And unfortunately, they don't differentiate among armed multinational forces, security contractors and humanitarian groups.
Nongovernmental organizations are by definition neutral and nonpolitical, so all we can hope for is that our actions will speak for themselves and will convince all those here that we are in Afghanistan to help the people.