updated 10/19/2006 4:58:07 PM ET 2006-10-19T20:58:07

First a Taliban suicide bomber killed a provincial governor. Then a gunman murdered a Women’s Ministry director. A police chief, intelligence director and top administrator from the same eastern district were killed.

Bombs targeted but missed two more governors elsewhere. And the latest target — a provincial councilman — was slain in Kandahar this week.

Hewing closely to a strategy used by Iraqi insurgents, Taliban militants are increasingly targeting top government officials in Afghanistan, which has seen a spike in assassinations and attempted killings the last six weeks.

The attacks are forcing officials to travel with more bodyguards and to set up more checkpoints. Some government employees have stopped going to work, fearing for their lives.

“The Taliban can’t fight in a big group, so now they’ve moved on to these targeted assassinations,” said Naimatullah Khan, deputy chief of the council in southern Kandahar province, whose colleague was killed last weekend.

Tactics from Iraq being adopted
Violence has spiked alarmingly in Afghanistan this year, and insurgents have adopted tactics used in Iraq, such as roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

Hitting top officials, including associates and appointees of President Hamid Karzai, appears to be part of a wider strategy of undermining his government, which took over after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001 but still has only a feeble reach. The Taliban also have killed or abducted aid workers to stymie development, and burned down hundreds of schools.

In Iraq, assassinations have forced government officials to live behind heavy protection and think long and hard before volunteering for public service. The same could happen in Afghanistan.

“The campaign has just started now (in Afghanistan). If it escalates to the level of Iraq, you will see that all the governors lose their freedom,” said Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “The strategy is to isolate those people from ordinary man, to make them live under psychological and physical siege.”

Echoes of Soviet conflict
Afghan officials say targeted killings are nothing new in Afghanistan. Mujahedeen who fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s used the tactic against pro-communist government officials. In September 2002, months after taking power, Karzai himself was nearly gunned down in Kandahar by a former Taliban soldier but escaped injury.

Rarely, however, has the tactic been pursued with such intensity.

Abdul Hakim Taniwal, governor of Paktia province and a close ally of Karzai’s, was slain by a suicide bomber Sept. 10. Another suicide bomber the next day killed six people at Taniwal’s funeral; four senior Cabinet ministers escaped injury.

Then two other attacks against governors failed: A suicide bomber killed 18 people outside the governor’s compound in Helmand province late last month, while the governor of Laghman escaped unhurt when a bomb exploded near his compound as his convoy drove by.

But the police chief, administrator and intelligence director of Khogyani district in the eastern Nangarhar province were killed Oct. 9 by a roadside bomb while on their way to investigate the burning of a school.

Leaders remain undeterred
In Kandahar, the former seat of the Taliban regime, officials also have been repeatedly targeted. Khan and other government officials there, including the volatile province’s governor, maintain it won’t scare them into abandoning their posts.

“My life was always in danger,” said Gov. Asadullah Khalid, who also survived an assassination attempt last month. “I’m not afraid of this.”

Despite the defiance, Khan said the Kandahar provincial council this week doubled the number of body guards assigned to the council members — he now travels with six, up from three. “We’re trying to protect ourselves against these types of attacks,” he said.

The assassinations have had other effects, too. After a gunman last month killed Safia Ama Jan, the director of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs for Kandahar province, the four remaining female employees at the office quit, said Mohammad Haider, an administrator for the ministry.

“The women told us that two men were chasing them on a motorbike,” he said. “They quit soon after that.”

There were no women at all at the ministry’s office when a reporter stopped by this week, and Haider said the number of women seeking help at the office dropped drastically after Jan’s slaying.

Assassinations “prevent people from cooperating with the government or being part of it,” said the analyst, Alani. “It is a very effective instrument. It’s a strategy, not just a technique.”

The only woman employee left in the Women’s Ministry office, the newly appointed replacement for Jan, was in Kabul this week. But Haider said even she accepted the position reluctantly and fears she could be next on the Taliban’s hit list. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Even when I’m sitting in the office with her, I can tell she’s afraid,” Haider said. “She told the security guard two times, ’Don’t let anybody inside the office. Don’t open the door.”’

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