Documents released this week reinforced concerns that elements of the Pakistani government are actively helping suicide bombers enter Afghanistan. The news comes during a summer of heavy fighting on the battlefield -- and also in the field of public perception.
U.S.-led international forces say they are taking the fight to the Taliban as never before. The Taliban, meanwhile, with a seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers, have launched audacious attacks on some of the strongest coalition bases in the country. Both sides believe they are winning the war.
Despite decades of war, suicide bombs are relatively new to Afghanistan. The Afghan government has tried to paint them as an alien force, coming from outside. All week long, government officials in Kabul have been citing the leaked U.S. military documents as proof that Pakistan's intelligence service is facilitating the training and transport of bombers into Afghanistan.
"Since 2006, when we started to have suicide bombing in Afghanistan and the terrorist activities started to escalate in Afghanistan, we have always told our international partners that we will not have a stable Afghanistan unless we pay attention to the places where terrorism is being nurtured, where they are given sanctuary and where they are given ideological motives, motives to carry out their attacks in Afghanistan," presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said.
This summer, the Taliban employed a relatively new tactic -– one that startled U.S. officials. Instead of sticking to the mountainous terrain that favors their guerrilla fighters, the insurgents launched several frontal assaults on heavily fortified targets.
In May, a group of suicide bombers rushed the gates of Bagram Air Base, the size of a small city and home to tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers with artillery, helicopters and jets. Only days later, they tried the same method to assault Kandahar airfield, another sprawling fortress. In June, suicide bombers hit a base in Jalalabad. This month, they tried the tactic on police stations and a bunkered aid organization.
The first attack at Bagram took everyone by surprise.
'Brave And Crazy'
"It's very surprising because we have so many Americans here, and they came all the way here and carried out their operation," vegetable vendors Sayed Khaled and Mahmud Taher said through an interpreter. "But ... they can do it wherever they want; they did it at the airport, so why can't they do it here? They are suicide bombers."
When asked whether they think the Taliban are brave or crazy, they reply: "They are both brave and crazy. They are brave in the sense that they accept the fact to kill themselves. But crazy because they kill everybody who comes forward."
U.S. officials characterized the attack's impact as about the same as flies on a windshield, but Khaled and Taher say they think the Taliban attack was successful, simply by the fact that it lasted for about four hours and showed that the insurgents can hit anywhere in the country.
That's the effect the Taliban are trying for, says Waheed Mohzdah, a former Taliban government minister who now lives in Kabul.
"Propaganda-wise it was a successful message -- to show that they have the ability to get into Bagram base," Mohzdah said through an interpreter. "And also [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal was searching [for] the Taliban in Nuristan and those areas, chasing the Taliban, but the Taliban were attacking the Bagram base."
McChrystal was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in May.
Steady Supply Of Bombers
The Taliban have no shortage of suicide bombers to carry out these missions, Mohzdah says. They recruit from madrasas in Pakistan, where along with studying the Quran, pupils consume a heavy diet of violent video clips from Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Of 500 students in a given madrasa, Mohzdah says, perhaps 50 of the most emotional, most aggressive students are chosen for special training. Sometimes, they are outfitted with what they think is a suicide vest, and the Taliban recruiter observes how well they follow their orders to carry out a mock bombing. About half of the 50 students might pass that test, Mohzdah says. This story is borne out by testimony of failed suicide bombers.
In one of numerous videotaped depositions provided by Afghan security services, 18-year-old Saifullah tells the story of his travels from Helmand province, in the south, to Pakistan. He describes the decision to wage a war on foreign troops and become a suicide bomber as a Western teenager might describe picking up a job for the summer.
Two months ago, he met a recruiter who convinced him to train as a bomber. They traveled to Pakistan, and then back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban transported Saifullah, blindfolded, through a series of safe houses. The last house, in Kabul, was raided by police before he could complete his mission.
Kabul authorities point to their success at preventing bombers like Saifullah from disrupting last week's international donor conference.
U.S. military officials say they are punishing the enemy like never before.
"A high tempo of targeted special operations continues, and those operations have killed, captured or run off hundreds of Taliban leaders and rank and file," said Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was in Kabul last week. "The enemy is feeling pressure and clearly lashing out."
But the Taliban, says Mohzdah, feel they can absorb the punishment, and keep chipping away at the government and foreign troops. It's the same strategy they remember using against the Soviet army. They called the Russians a great bear that could only be killed with a thousand little cuts over many years.
"Now in Afghanistan, it's the same strategy -- they think time is in our benefit," Mohzdah said. "We can defeat foreign troops by this way. The victory [is] not just for Taliban, but for all Muslim world."
Both sides see themselves as holding the upper hand by their own estimation. By the end of the summer's fighting season, it may be clear whose definition of victory pertains in Afghanistan.