The audacious attack on the well-protected Afghan parliamentary building on June 23 demonstrates the Taliban’s continued ability to strike dead in the heart of Kabul, but more importantly also suggests that the battle in Afghanistan is just as much about politics as it is about military forces. While the causalities from the attack were not as great as in other high profile attacks in Kabul, the widely broadcast footage of the well attended session being interrupted by the initial explosion and the highly symbolic nature of the target was meant to send a clear political message.
First of all, the timing of the attack is important. In recent days, the Taliban have made significant territorial gains in both the north and the south of the country. While informal peace talks have occurred recently in Qatar and Norway, progress has been limited. Part of this, some have suggested, is the Taliban’s conviction that the central government is currently in a position of weakness.
Another aspect of recent frenzy of Taliban political and military activity are the inroads that ISIS has made over the past year. With several key Taliban leaders defecting to the group, there is concern that ISIS represents a new source of funds and political legitimacy that the Taliban has lost over the past years of protracted fighting and civilian causalities.
Despite the recent increase in high profile attacks, all this suggests instead, that this a key moment to push for a political resolution to a conflict that increasingly seems to have no military solution.
The attack on parliament, however, underscores the delicacy of the political situation and the need for political support from the international community. For many Afghans the key element of the attack may have been the fact that President Ashraf Ghani’s nominee for Minister of Defense, Masoom Stanekzai was due to be voted on the day of the attack. Stanekzai, who is widely respected by various factions among the Kabul elite and served previously as head of Karzai’s reconciliation efforts, is seen by many as a nominee who could combine military and political efforts in attempts to stabilize the country.
The position of Minister of Defense, however, has been unfilled since Ghani’s inauguration in September and was a point of debate among the political elite in Kabul. The fact that Ghani had not been able to fill it was widely seen as emblematic of his struggles to create an effective government to stand up to the Taliban. The attack’s delay of the vote may have been just symbolic, but for many Afghans frustrated with the slow rate of reform and stagnate economy, it demonstrated just how shaky the government is.
The day of the attack was also remarkable because technically it was supposed to be the end of the legal term for this parliament. With parliamentary elections for this year already pushed back, however, Ghani had declared that they would remain in their positions until a timeline for elections was worked out. The attack highlighted the questionable legal status of the current parliament and Ghani’s struggles to bring all the different political factions in the country into his coalition government.
With the continued presence of U.S. troops in the country and a widespread desire among the population to see an end to the fighting, there is still a real possibility for progress in terms of reaching a peace agreement. This is likely to enable America to send more troops home and to be able to more effectively support Ghani in his political and economic reforms.
Such an agreement, however, will be political, more than it will be military. To take advantage of this moment when the likelihood of the Taliban negotiating may actually be increasing, the Afghan government needs to push forward with reforms that will make it both more unified and legitimate. This includes electoral reforms following last year’s deeply flawed presidential election (a commission has been announced, but no real progress made) and a constitutional convention to clarify the legal status of the current coalition government. While most of this is the work of Afghan politicians, international pressure on Ghani to continue his agenda of political reforms (and support for him against some of his warlord allies who oppose these changes) will do much to help.
The attack on parliament showed the continued military threat that the Taliban present, but also only further demonstrated the fact that the response of the Afghan government and the international community that supports it, must be a clear agenda of political reform.
Noah Coburn is a professor of political anthropology at Bennington College and a Truman National Security Fellow. He has conducted research on the ground in Afghanistan since 2005 and served as an election monitor there in 2014. He is the author of Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town.