With Taliban Bombing, Is Kabul Still Contested?

This morning, a suicide bomber drove what the Taliban said were 1,600 pounds of explosives into a NATO convoy in Kabul, killing 18 people, including five Americans. The Taliban said that the attacker was from Kabul, Afghanistan's capital city and the home of the international mission to secure Afghanistan for almost a decade. As the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) endeavors to expand its efforts in the country's troubled southern region, today's attack raises concerns about their control in the friendlier and more peaceful north.

Since the Taliban fled Kabul in the first weeks of the late 2001 invasion, the city has been a turbulent but relatively reliable home for the international mission and for the Afghan national government. With curated gardens and a substantial downtown district, Kabul is far from the war-torn crater many Westerners assume all of Afghanistan to be. Its population is predominantly ethnic Tajik, whereas the Taliban is largely Pashtun. The city is home to heavy military patrols, a substantial population of NGO workers helping to promote health and civil society, and some of the country's least troubled governance; even Afghan President Hamid Karzai's fiercest critics, who nickname him "the Mayor of Kabul," concede his government's control in the capital. That the Taliban were able to recruit within Kabul and to prepare, plan, and execute such a major attack in the city demonstrates that the group maintains access to even the least Taliban-friendly corners of Afghanistan.

The Taliban command-and-control structure is largely based in the regions along and across Pakistan's border, where frequent U.S. drone strikes and a recent offensive by the Pakistan military have been unable to uproot them. The Taliban maintains significant popular support in the Pashtun-heavy south of Afghanistan, where some of the world's most profitable opium fields provide the Taliban with funding and give the local population a reason to mistrust outsiders. In February, the ISAF launched its largest military operation to date in the southern district of Marjah, seeking to clear it of the Taliban and expand military control into the rest of the region. But the Taliban remain persistently lodged in Marjah, terrorizing locals and defying coalition influence. As the ISAF prepares for a Marjah-like campaign in the southern city of Kandahar, Afghanistan's capital under the Taliban, it faces perhaps its most difficult mission to date. The Taliban retain a significant presence in Kandahar and, should the assault there unfold in a similar manner as in Marjah, the ISAF will face an inflamed insurgency and an endangered population. Kandahar would require the full attention of the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government simply to keep from devolving into the destabilizing and persistent violence of any contested occupation.

Violence has persisted in Kabul for years and will likely continue as long as the Taliban remain a viable fighting force with country-wide reach. The U.S.-led efforts in southern Afghanistan and in the Pakistan border regions, then, are essential to reducing the Taliban's strength and ability to operate across Afghanistan, including in Kabul. As long as Afghanistan's outer reaches remain insurgent strongholds, no part of the country will really be safe from Taliban attack.