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The Battle for Kabul has Begun

Vishal Chandra is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 18, 2012

    The well-synchronised multiple-attacks in Kabul and neighbouring provinces on Sunday afternoon are yet another grim reminder of what awaits Afghanistan. Kabul has already emerged as the key battlefield for groups challenging the decade-old West-sponsored political order. The Pakistan-based and backed Afghan militant groups are once again engaged in subverting whatever little or more has been achieved in terms of rebuilding Afghan institutions by way of more than modest international engagement. The greater one tries to look into the future, the more one sees old patterns of the Afghan conflict re-emerging.

    The Pakistan-based Afghan groups have been infiltrating the government structures and closing in on Kabul since their resurgence in 2006-07. In the last few years, they have carried out a series of high profile attacks within the city, aimed at grabbing international attention and for political signalling at the domestic level. In this battle of minds, the Taliban and the Haqqani network have come to acquire a definite upper hand. As of now, the Afghan war seems to be coming full circle, with the West pushing for a quixotic security transition to Afghan forces and rushing into political reconciliation with the inaccessible Taliban leadership based in Pakistan.

    Repeated attacks on government entities, diplomatic missions and foreign military institutions in and around Kabul serves many purposes at the same time. It directly hits at the credibility of the Afghan government, the army and the police, and makes a mockery of the decade-long Western politico-military endeavour that seems to be going nowhere. It invariably helps the Taliban in testing its own readiness for skilfully executing such complex operations in a supposedly highly securitised urban environment.

    The old strike-at-will strategy; making a tactical retreat from one theatre only to subsequently surface at another; and, to be seen as moderating and yet uncompromising to the core, are all typical of guerrilla-styled Afghan warfare with a strong rear support base. The storming of the Bannu Central Jail in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa by the Pakistani Taliban earlier in the day, which reportedly led to the escape of about 350 to 400 militants, including some high profile terrorists, could not have been a mere coincidence. It comes immediately after Pakistan completed the review of its bilateral ties with the US. The coming together of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban has the potential to destabilise both countries.

    The April 15 attacks across Kabul and in its close vicinity seem to be more than the ritualistic beginning of the spring offensive every year by the Haqqani-Taliban network. The idea is to gain an upper hand right from the beginning and to progressively instil and reinforce a sense of defeatism and futility among the Western and Afghan forces in particular, and the people in general. The targets chosen for the April 15 attack—diplomatic missions, parliament, hotels frequented by foreigners, army bases, etc., are well in sync with the Taliban-Haqqani network’s effort to position itself for the post-2014 scenario. The coordinated attacks were notably timed to send a loud and clear message well before the NATO summit in Chicago in May, the first in a series of major international conferences planned this year for post-2014 Afghanistan. It also comes on the heels of two major agreements reached between Kabul and Washington—transfer of control over prisons and night raids—considered as crucial for the signing of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between the two countries, which is supposed to define the basis of the long-term US role and engagement in Afghanistan.

    The attacks also took place in the backdrop of Kabul’s effort to revive the High Peace Council by appointing as its Chairman Salahuddin Rabbani, son of veteran Afghan leader from the north, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed in a suicide attack in Kabul last year; and President Hamid Karzai’s proposal to hold presidential elections a year earlier in 2013, lest it clashes with the end of the Western combat mission in 2014. The attacks could also be part of the effort by the Taliban-Haqqani network to consolidate their position in anticipation of a likely security and political vacuum as the West draw down its forces and Karzai’s second and final term (as per the Afghan Constitution) comes to an end in 2014. The attack could also be reflective of the growing Taliban resistance to the multi-track reconciliation initiative or friction within the Taliban on the issue. Both Kabul and Washington independently claim to have broken into the Taliban ranks to negotiate peace.

    These attacks may also be regarded as symptomatic of the growing frustration within the Taliban-Haqqani network over the military successes of the US and NATO-led forces in south-eastern Afghanistan, and the prospects of a long-term US presence beyond 2014. Having lost control over their traditional strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand due to the surge in the US military campaign, the Taliban guerrillas have shifted their attention to the Kabul region and the hitherto peaceful northern and western parts of the country, as evident from the targeting of high-profile figures in these regions in the last one year.

    The Haqqani-Taliban network is likely to carry out more such high profile attacks well through the coming years until a major transformation takes place in the US’ regional strategy. The US’ aid-and-raid approach towards Pakistan has not delivered the intended results thus far, and is not likely to until the nature and level of future US engagement in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region has anything to offer. If military means alone do not suffice as a viable option, then attempts at ‘reconciliation’ or ‘power-sharing’ with sections of Taliban too do not have much to offer in the given circumstances. Perhaps, an improvised combination of both plus a more balanced regional approach is required to initially reverse the grim scenario.

    All is still not lost for the West as regional countries so far opposed to a substantive US presence seem to be acquiescing to a smaller but effective US presence in view of heightened threat perceptions from a resurgent Taliban. Even as they keep up the rhetoric against a prolonged US presence in Afghanistan, they are likely to support the US’ wider counter-terrorism efforts well after 2014. At the moment though there is no consensus within the US administration on how to effectively deal with the Af-Pak challenge, it remains conscious of the overall cost of any precipitous withdrawal of forces or even prospect of redeployment of troops in the region in future.

    Meanwhile, the Taliban-Haqqani network, and more importantly, their patrons, are reassessing and reworking their strategies. It is clear that the only viable option available is to help build Afghan capacities to the extent that it could largely deal with its internal and external challenges with minimal external support. As of now, the planned Western draw down over the next two years is threatening to once again plunge Afghanistan into greater chaos and anarchy, with Kabul as the centre stage.