Afghan and international forces laid a security ring around Kabul yesterday as dignitaries traveled from around the world for the inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president.
In their biggest operation since the October election, which Karzai won in a landslide, police and troops cordoned off the route from the city's battle-scarred airport to the presidential palace, where the US-backed leader was to be sworn in today.
Trucks and cars with license plates from beyond Kabul were turned away at the city limits. NATO armored vehicles mounted extra patrols, and US helicopters scoured the mountains that encircle the capital.
Karzai's installation will crown a three-year drive to stabilize Afghanistan since a US bombing campaign drove out the former ruling Taliban for harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Insurgents continue to harass US and Afghan forces across a broad swath of the south and east. US commanders say they expect to keep their force strength at about 18,000 at least until after parliamentary elections slated for the spring.
But Karzai has said the country's booming drug economy, which accounts for an estimated one-third of national income, is now a bigger threat, and will be the top priority of his fresh five-year term.
After rebels failed to make good on a threat to seriously disrupt the Oct. 9 vote, and US and Afghan officials offered many an amnesty, there is speculation that Taliban-linked figures may resurface in the new government.
However, officials remain on guard against what US commanders describe as a "strategic surprise" in the shape of a spectacular attack by militant die-hards or al-Qaeda cells on today's ceremony. Kabul has seen four deadly suicide attacks this year.
Nerves will be particularly taut because of the expected presence of a US delegation led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.