Last month’s raid on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel was the first major militant attack following US President Barack Obama’s announcement over the gradual withdrawal of US troops, and the first on the hotel itself since international forces entered the country in 2001.
The hotel, one of the oldest in Kabul, is a virtual fortress by any standard. Before you can even get into the hotel corridors you have to go through a minimum of five security checkpoints, each manned by private security guards and Afghan police. Yet despite the presence of heavily-armed and well-trained officers, Taliban insurgents managed to break through and let loose a hail of bullets.
The Intercontinental offensive shows the fragility of the security scenario in Afghanistan, and the inability of the Afghan Army and police to protect the country from the Taliban. It also further reinforces the fear among a large section of the Afghan population about what happens once foreign forces have left.
Suddenly, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has started to resemble Mohammad Nazibullah, president from 1986 to 1992. Afghanistan’s troubled past, which casts a constant shadow over its people, is looming over Kabul.
Burhan, a friend of mine in Kabul who returned there from Canada a few years ago to start a new business, has been feeling despondent ever since the United States announced its intention to withdraw from. This sense of gloom is clear among many more of those who have reaped the benefits of the more liberal post-Taliban atmosphere — particularly women, who have been allowed to get more involved in day-to-day Afghan life.
‘Afghans have returned to markets and other public places, and women are starting to seize new opportunities to get an education or a job,' writes Fotini Christia in Foreign Affairs. ‘But where Obama touts success, Afghans see fragility.’
Ten years ago, when the intervention in Afghanistan began, some of the more rational international voices suggested engaging in dialogue with the Taliban. Yet it has taken almost a decade, and thousands of deaths, for Washington to come to its senses. One question now is whether these talks will yield the desired results and offer Afghanistan a new direction. A bigger one, though, is whether the Taliban will even accept a peace deal when they know that their main adversary is already in retreat.
So what hope does Afghanistan have?
In a decade of international operations in Afghanistan, not only have the coalition forces been unable to contain the Taliban, but the region is in fact more dangerous now than before international troops arrived. The international community has failed to build any institution of lasting importance. The Afghan National Army (ANA), for example, which is scheduled to take over the security of the country after the departure of NATO troops, is inefficient and wholly incapable of dealing with security issues.
Even though Karzai may have publicly welcomed Obama’s announcement, the truth is that he’s being delusional. He knows that his government is unable to provide security for its own citizens, and that the people have no faith in the ANA’s ability to protect them. The country’s security forces are hugely unreliable, and indeed elements are often complicit with insurgent groups and drug traffickers.
Regional players like India, meanwhile, are watching the unfolding situation in the Hindu Kush very carefully. Not wanting to be left out, New Delhi is accepting the proposed talks with the Taliban, and the country’s enhanced association with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization sends the message that New Delhi is seeking a regional solution to the Afghan problem. While NATO and the United States have failed to unite regional stakeholders in Afghanistan, the SCO has the advantage of bringing all of them together on one platform.
Pham Van Dong, one of the longest serving prime ministers of Vietnam and a war hero of the country’s independence struggle, once wrote that: ‘There is nothing else in our history except struggle. Struggle against foreign invaders, always more powerful than ourselves, struggle against nature. Because we have nowhere else to go, we have had to fight things out where we were…. Our people have developed a very stable nervous system. We never panic. When a situation arises, our people say, “Ah well, there is goes again”.’
One could easily apply this to Afghanistan as well.