Siege and Symbolism in Kabul

September 15, 2011

This week insurgents grabbed headlines by staging a nearly 20-hour attack in Kabul. This incident is the latest in a string of acts of violence aimed at creating a sense of instability in the country. These attacks underscore the challenges facing transition to Afghan leadership and – as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen have said – the importance of its continuing on pace. Part of that process must be finding a political solution that can incorporate all parts of Afghan society. We see small signs of progress in the lead-up to two international conferences on Afghanistan this fall – but negotiations with the Taliban will be long, tough and characterized by a mixture of progress and setbacks along the way to an agreement.

The incident in Kabul is the latest in a string of largely symbolic attacks; shows the need to combat safe havens in Pakistan. As Joshua Foust of the American Security Project writes, “This attack on the embassy is the latest in a series of attacks by insurgents inside Kabul. Last month it was a large, multi-pronged attack on Karte Parwan, a wealthy part of town where Vice President Fahimi lives. This summer was marked by a string of brazen suicide attacks across the country, including one that killed President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali. The month ended with a complex, sustained assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. In April Kabul was rocked with suicide attacks on the Afghan Army and on an ISAF base. In February there was another suicide bomb attack at another hotel in Kabul, killing two. And in January of this year, a brazen suicide assault on an upscale supermarket in Kabul supposedly targeted a Blackwater executive, though the attackers missed their target.”

These ongoing attacks underscore the need to combat safe-havens in Pakistan from which groups such as the Haqqani network – thought to be responsible for this week’s attack – operate. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta warned Pakistan this week that America intends to respond to such attacks. Panetta said, “I think the message they (the Pakistanis) need to know is: we’re going to do everything we can to defend our forces.” [Joshua Foust, 9/13/11. Leon Panetta via Reuters, 9/14/11]

Transition should proceed as planned. Following the attacks, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained, “We are witnessing that the Taliban try to test transition but they can’t stop it. Transition is on track and it will continue.” [Anders Fogh Rasmussen via Reuters, 9/13/11]

Meanwhile, negotiations with the Taliban are moving slowly forward in the lead-up to international conferences this fall. These attacks are meant to distract from the larger process of transition, and efforts toward a sustainable political solution Afghanistan. Recent weeks have seen small pieces of progress in that area. As Wired magazine reported late last month, “For years, the Taliban’s position about negotiating an end to the decade-long war with Hamid Karzai’s government or the United States has been straightforward: U.S. troops have to leave Afghanistan first. While analysts have long speculated that the Taliban isn’t really as rigid behind closed doors, its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, now leaves no doubt. The Taliban is already negotiating with the U.S., Omar confirmed. …[D]espite Omar’s flashes of rhetorical belligerence, his message is notable for how it seeds the bed for negotiations that could finally end the war in Afghanistan.” Ahmed Rashid, an expert on the Taliban, explained the message: “Coming at a time when violence is at its worst and bloodshed in Afghanistan being committed both by US forces and the Taliban, this message seems a hopeful sign that talks and a negotiated settlement to end the war are a possibility.”

Additionally, reports indicate U.S. backing for the establishment of a Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, to serve as a “political office” from which to conduct negotiations. These are important signs in the lead-up to the two international conferences coming this fall in Istanbul, Turkey, and Bonn, Germany, where first Afghanistan’s neighbors and then the wider  international community will come together to discuss how to effectively execute transition. Progress will likely continue to be halting though, as right now the Taliban will not participate in either conference. [Wired, 8/30/11. Ahmed Rashid, 8/29/11. AFP, 9/13/11]

What We’re Reading

British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew to Tripoli, pledging continued support for the country’s new leaders.

London police arrested a man for unauthorized trading that cost the Swiss banking firm UBS approximately $2 billion dollars.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told defense contractors that he would formulate new policy to guide new projects, ahead of anticipated $330 billion in cuts to Pentagon budget plans..

The Israeli government, concerned about a demonstration planned outside its embassy in Amman, brought its ambassador and most embassy staff back to Israel.

Iran’s judiciary denied that two Americans convicted of spying would be released, one day after President Ahmadinejad announced they would be, ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting.

A Chinese court sentenced four men to death for attacks in the Xinjiang region in July.

Sudan’s leadership selected a politician from Darfur as the country’s new vice president.

A Colombian court sentenced a former intelligence chief to 25 years in prison for collaborating with right-wing militias.

A U.S. government report blamed the April 2010 Gulf oil spill on BP and its contractors.

Commentary of the Day

Khaled Elgindy argues that rather than viewing the Palestinians’ statehood bid at the UN as a threat to the peace process, the U.S. should see it as an opportunity to reset an outdated approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

John Norris and Bronwyn Bruton examine the cost of failing to invest in crisis prevention.

Fareed Zakaria suggests that China can help Europe overcome its debt.

 

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