Whether we like it or not, the Taliban will either have a role in shaping Afghanistan's future, or in destroying it
A six-hour attack on Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel, which ended early this morning, has shaken one of Afghanistan's few remaining places largely seen as still safe from terrorism. Nine suicide bombers killed at least 21 people, including nine Afghan civilians and one Spaniard civilian. As with a March 2010 attack in Kabul, the incident underscores the reach of insurgents as well as the inability -- and, perhaps in some cases, the unwillingness -- of security forces to hold them back. But it also calls into question who in Afghanistan has, to borrow a word often used by U.S. military leaders, momentum.
Over the past six or so months, as it's become increasingly clear that the U.S. plans to leave Afghanistan by negotiating an exit with the Taliban, rather than by seeking total military victory over it, U.S. officials have maintained both on and off the record that our strategy is to continue fighting to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. Though we can't defeat the Taliban completely, they argue, we can make things more difficult for the group, pressuring them to accept a more favorable peace deal. But yesterday's attack raises the question, who is pressuring whom? Are we holding the Taliban to the fire, or are they holding us?
It's still not clear which insurgent group was behind the attack. Most reports say the group responsible is not yet known. ABC News' Nick Schifrin reports on Twitter that, according to an "international official," the attackers were with the Haqqani network, a particularly brutal group that is distinct from the Taliban, though both share similar goals and base their leadership in neighboring Pakistan. Whoever it was, they have once again exposed the inability of Afghan national security forces to protect against insurgents. The Atlantic Wire's Uri Friedman explains:
We mentioned below that the Intercontinental was fortified, but we didn't realize how fortified. Check out this description from The Christian Science Monitor: "The approach up the hotel's long driveway involves zigzagging around concrete barriers, then stopping midway up. Usually, passengers exit the vehicle while police do a sweep of it and pat down the passengers. At the hotel entrance, another security check is done that involves x-ray scanners and a full patdown." What's more, roadblocks and checkpoints are usually set up in Kabul in the evening, making a nighttime attack that much harder. So what does all this mean? Either the attackers had inside help, as Andrea Mitchell suggests below, or, as The Guardian writes, the attack is an embarrassment for the "Afghan government as it prepares to take responsibility for security."
Whether the insurgents had help from security forces or simply worked around them, the most significant point remains the same. As long as the insurgents and the national government are at odds, attacks like this will continue. The U.S. has tried to solve the problem by strengthening Afghan security forces and weakening the Taliban, but this appears to be a losing battle. A negotiated peace deal between the Afghan government and the insurgents seems to be the only remaining option; rather than separating security forces from Taliban, such a deal would attempt to bridge their differences. This would likely require the extremely distasteful concession of allowing the Taliban a role in the government, something President Obama hinted at in his recent speech on the Afghan war.
Giving the Taliban a role in Afghanistan's leadership would not be an easy thing for the Afghan government, which has paid dearly for its years-long war against the insurgents, or for the U.S., which worries that the group maintains ties to al-Qaeda and still looks too similar to the group that sheltered Osama bin Laden before and after September 11, 2001. But, as the attacks yesterday and in so many days before demonstrate, whether we like it or not, the Taliban will either have a role in shaping Afghanistan's future, or in destroying it. Which it takes is up to us.