Conflict & Justice

Afghanistan: another day, another attack


An Afghan security guard in Kabul, May 21, 2011, after a Taliban bomb attack.


Paula Bronstein

KABUL — The news just keeps getting worse.

On Sunday, four suicide bombers in Afghan Border Police uniforms stormed the Traffic Police headquarters in Khost province, sparking a gun battle lasting several hours and finally killing six, in addition to the four attackers.

The dead included one civilian, three police officers, and two Afghan Army soldiers, according to Tolo TV. Four others were injured. All of the bombers were killed — two when they detonated their vests and two in the battle with the Afghan security forces.

But by any measure, this was bad news for those who are looking forward to the “Transition” — Afghans assuming control of their own security — beginning in July.

On Saturday, a suicide bomber, also in a police uniform, managed to gain access to a tightly guarded military hospital in a very “secure” section of Kabul — just yards from the U.S. Embassy.

The attacker detonated his vest in a canteen tent where Afghan medical students were eating lunch, killing six.

Some Afghans were bitterly amused by the news.

“Soon we will see the Presidential Palace in Kabul attacked by suicide bombers in Presidential Guard uniforms,” tweeted Wazhma Frogh, an outspoken Afghan gender specialist.

Many are doubtless feeling the same way. A series of attacks by uniformed “officers” over the past month has made it difficult to trust the armed forces.

On April 27, an Afghan Air Force pilot opened fire on international forces at the Kabul airport, killing nine.

A “policeman” killed the chief of police in Kandahar on April 15, and a few days later a man in an Army officer uniform penetrated the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, reaching the Defense Minister’s office before he was shot and killed by bodyguards. In Helmand, on May 13, two NATO officers were shot and killed by an Afghan policeman as they sat down to lunch.

The Taliban’s unabashed boasting about their success is doing nothing to calm people’s fears. They claim to have dozens, if not hundreds, of undercover police and army officers just ready to act when given the word.

On Twitter and websites, in text messages and via cell phone, the Taliban are communicating their inflated successes in a full-on media blitz.

The Afghan government is limiting itself to terse casualty statements and firm insistence that the situation is under control; the international community is putting on a brave front by condemning the “cowardly” attacks but maintaining that the Afghans will be ready to assume control when the time comes.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of the Taliban’s “broken momentum” in his May 19 speech that concentrated on the Middle East and North Africa.

This was the same day that 35 construction workers were killed by the insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, a car filled with explosive rammed an army bus in Nangarhar, and series of attacks in Helmand shook the province.

All actions were claimed by the Taliban, who certainly do not seem to feel “broken,” or even stalled. Operation Badar, as the insurgents call their spring offensive, has certainly made an impression.

General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has warned that this could be just the beginning. In a memorandum he issued to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) following Saturday’s attack on the hospital, he said that the insurgents would very likely mount many high-profile operations over the coming months to demonstrate that they were still in the game.

So what is going on? Is this the last gasp of an insurgency that knows its time has come, or the renewed urgency of a force that sees its enemy losing interest in the fight?

The question is far from academic. The reinvigorated peace talks bear witness to the fact that the United States is searching, at times feverishly, for a way out of the conflict in Afghanistan.

After insisting for years that the only way to force the Taliban to the table is by blasting them to smithereens, the United States is now in exploratory talks with high-level officials from the Quetta shura

This could be because the military feels that the Taliban are now sufficiently chastened by the uptick in offensive operations that they are willing to deal.

Or perhaps the Taliban are reading the blogosphere, and are as aware as the rest of us that Americans are losing patience with the war. 

The death of Osama bin Laden in the May 2 Abbottabad raid could be just icing on the cake, giving many a ready explanation as to why our presence is no longer needed in Afghanistan.

But maintaining the narrative of steady improvement in the Afghan security forces is a must; we cannot be seen to be running out on our commitments.

We are treated to an almost daily diet of progress reports. Lawmakers and generals parachute into various hot spots for a brief inspection, then go home to issue glowing reports.

Handing over responsibility to the Afghans while simultaneously declaring victory could be a good way to exit with grace. And, who knows, maybe things really will shape up over the next two months, giving us all cause to breathe a sigh of relief, start to withdraw U.S. troops, and rely on the Afghan security forces to maintain order.

With homage to Ernest Hemingway, isn’t it pretty to think so?