KABUL (Reuters) - As workers scurry around hauling stacks of chairs and giant saucepans in frantic, last-minute preparation for a tribal peace meeting in the Afghan capital, the man charged with securing the event remains comparatively calm.
Dressed in sandals and traditional Afghan garb instead of uniform, Mohammad Aslam Masood, a towering general in the Afghan police force, appears relaxed as he explains that all arrangements are in place to prevent an insurgent attack.
“All necessary measures have been taken and, God willing, it will all be fine,” said Masood, using a customary Muslim expression, in between hugging and kissing arriving officials.
Afghanistan is holding a peace “jirga” or a meeting of tribal elders this week to discuss President Hamid Karzai’s plan to seek reconciliation with the Taliban and other militant groups in a bid to end a war that has dragged on for almost nine years.
The insurgents will not be attending, however, and may try instead to disrupt the proceedings.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst level since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001 with insurgents moving out of their traditional strongholds in the south and east in recent years and launching increasing and daring assaults inside the capital itself.
Less than two weeks ago, a Taliban suicide bomber driving a vehicle full of explosives attacked a foreign military convoy in Kabul during the morning rush hour, killing 12 Afghan civilians and six international troops.
While the Taliban have not issued any specific threat against the jirga, the hardline-Islamists announced earlier this month they would step up their offensive against the government and Afghan and international forces as well as Western diplomats.
Attacking such a high-profile event where hundreds of Afghan elders, officials and Western dignitaries will congregate in one place over three days, would allow the insurgents to score a valuable political point.
Afghan and international forces are not taking any chances.
“Afghan security forces together with international militaries have segregated the security plan into four phases,” Deputy Director General of Policy for the jirga, Najeebulah Amin, told Reuters.
Security of the site itself will be managed by Afghanistan’s intelligence department and Karzai’s personal protection service, creating an “inner security circle”, Amin said, while Afghan police will guard entrances and access routes. The Afghan army will then provide an outer cordon with international forces in a supporting role.
All the roads leading up to the site of the jirga will be blocked to ordinary traffic and anyone without a vehicle pass and official identity card will not be allowed in. Armed bodyguards, including those of Western officials will also be turned away, said Amin.
The jirga is being held inside a large tent inside the grounds of Kabul’s Polytechnic University in the west of the city, which sits at the foot of a small hill providing an ideal vantage point for any attack.
To counter this, police posts have sprung up along the top of the hill and houses clinging to its slope have undergone rigorous searches, said Amin.
“My house has been searched three or four times over the past few months,” said Jamat Gul, whose grocery shop and house overlooks the jirga tent. “We were told no one can sell or rent their properties here to any new people,” he added.
Security for the capital was formally handed over to Afghan authorities in the last two years and although foreign forces maintain a visible presence inside the city, they are keen to point out they are only there to support.
“We won’t be out on the streets of Kabul,” said Sergeant First Class Kevin Bell, a spokesman for NATO-led forces. “We are confident the Afghans can handle the security and we are here to support.”
Nevertheless, a Turkish military quick reaction force will be on standby, said Bell, and international troops have set up a communications tent outside a hotel overlooking the jirga, to coordinate any operations.
“People are ready just in case,” said Bell.
While Afghan and international security forces remain publicly confident they can avert an attack on this week’s jirga, Masood, the police commander, later offered a more pragmatic assessment.
“Whoever says there will be no threat of an attack is a liar,” said Masood.
Editing by David Fox