Attempting to escape from a police checkpoint in Kabul, Malang Zafar Khan drove his pick-up truck straight at the gunpoints of the British Army Gurkhas. They had been waiting for the man sent to blow up the loya jirga, the national constitutional assembly that starts today.
In the following few days the Americans killed 15 children in two air raids while attempting to eliminate a warlord and destroy an arms dump. And they sent 2,000 troops into the mountains in their biggest ever ground offensive against the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. The events give a glimpse into the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, a war of attrition taking place largely in the shadows with the focus of the world's media firmly fixed on Iraq. The Afghan war was, of course, the first chapter of George Bush's War on Terror launched after the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.
After a relatively quick and casualty-free campaign - for the American military, if not Afghan civilians - Washington declared victory and moved on to begin preparations for tackling Saddam Hussein. But just as the announcement of the official end to hostilities in Iraq has been followed by mayhem, the conflict has restarted in Afghanistan. The military bill for the Pentagon, so far, is a staggering $50bn - nearly £30bn.
There are other similarities. Attacks in Afghanistan have begun to emulate those in Iraq: suicide bombings, which are not a traditional Afghan approach; similar types of explosive devices set off by remote control; missile attacks from longer range; and the targeting of foreign aid organizations and the UN. Just as Iraqi guerrillas rocketed the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad when the US Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, was staying there, so Afghan guerrillas fired rockets into the American embassy in Kabul during the visit of Mr Wolfowitz's boss, Donald Rumsfeld, less than week ago.
One of the most worrying developments has been the systematic killing of aid workers, now totaling 15. Colonel Mike Griffiths, the commander of the British troops in Afghanistan, told The Independent: "There is no doubt. There are now indications of methodology transfer from Iraq. Some of the things we have seen in Iraq, we are beginning to see here."
Eighteen months after the fall of their Islamist regime, the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies are resurgent, while the forces of the Kabul government are in retreat in large swaths of the south and east. The deputy governor of Zabul admits most of his province is now in Taliban hands, officials report that the situation is much the same in neighboring Oruzgan, while about half the territory in Kandahar has slipped out of government control. In the dusty town of Spin Boldak close to the border with Pakistan in the east, where the Taliban was born, black and green flags celebrate its rebirth.
American forces in Afghanistan and the multinational International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) have come under fire more times in the past three months than the previous 15. This year, 25 American and Isaf soldiers have been killed and 28 injured. The number of Afghans, allied and enemy, killed, according to the US military, is "several thousand". More than 400 Taliban fighters were said to have been killed in September.
The two figures painted as the epitomes of evil, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, remain free: the former believed to be in the remote region of Pakistan, and the latter back in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai, the beleaguered, US-sponsored President, reported what he termed a reliable sighting of Bin Laden at a mosque in Pakistan near the border, one of several reports of his presence in the area. Meanwhile, Omar, the one-eyed former Taliban leader, issued a call last month for a popular uprising against the occupying forces.
There is now a third enemy leader ranged against President Karzai and his allies. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, created by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence as a mujahedin leader against the Russians, and a past favored recipient of CIA largesse, is an increasingly active player in the anti-Western alliance.
Malang Zafir Khan, the man captured by the Gurkhas, was his chief of operations and suspected of organizing a bus bombing in June that killed four German soldiers. He was the eighth member of the Hekmatyar organization to be arrested since September. Military intelligence sources say the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and Hekmatyar are co-ordinating attacks, and there is evidence that foreign fighters - Arabs from North Africa, Chechens and Pakistanis - are involved. Madrassas, religious schools, in west Pakistan, long a source of recruits for the Taliban and al-Qa'ida, are again drawing students from Afghanistan.
Captured fighters say there is no shortage of equipment for them across the border. These appear to be funded by the proceeds of heroin production, which is increasing; the area planted with poppies has risen to 152,000 acres from 4,200 acres two years ago. Other sources have been the siphoning of aid money as well as funding from the Middle East. The picture is not all gloomy. The Kabul government is appearing to make progress in disarming allied warlords involved in faction fighting. Early this month, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most powerful warlords, agreed in principle to hand over the weapons of his private army to a British military and diplomatic mission in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north.
Twelve missions - Provincial Reconstruction Teams - are being sent to other warlords. Following international and domestic pressure, the US administration has released more aid money. The Karzai government, however, still faces a severe cash crisis.
In the summer, the influential American think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, published a detailed report on Afghanistan, entitled Are We Losing the Peace?. The conclusion was that, unless urgent and drastic steps are taken, the answer is "Yes".
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd