The deadly attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul late Tuesday night is a timely reminder of just how precarious the situation remains 10 years after the first U.S. troops entered Afghanistan. From taxi drivers to television talk-show hosts, all of Kabul is abuzz with the news of the Taliban's latest strike on the capital. The all-out assault on the fortress-like hotel on a hill has underscored the growing fear across the country that it is only a matter of time before Afghanistan descends once again into civil war.
With the White House announcement last week of plans to withdraw 33,000 U.S. troops by September 2012, the Long War appears to be entering its last years as far as the United States is concerned. Most Afghans understand, however, that the fight will go on long after the last foreign troops leave and that plans for a transition to full Afghan control of security in 2014 are little more than a politically convenient fantasy.
Insurgents have demonstrated a startling determination to expose the Afghan government's weaknesses ever since Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced plans in late March to begin transitioning security in the capital city and six other areas of the country to Afghan control by July of this year. Since March, at least 50 people have been killed and scores wounded in insurgent attacks in or close to four out of the seven areas slated for transition next month. The strike on the Intercontinental was a strategic blow; it occurred only hours before Afghan provincial governors were scheduled to gather in the capital for a conference on transition plans. The investigation into the attack on the hotel is ongoing, but given the pattern of past attacks in the capital it is not at all unlikely the armed attackers were able to sneak their weapons past security checkpoints by greasing a few government palms along the way, or by wearing police uniforms, as has been reported by some outlets.
NATO officials can talk all they like about signs of progress, but with only a couple of weeks left before Kabul is due to transition to Afghan control, Karzai's government has never looked more vulnerable. The assault in the heart of the Afghan capital raises the question: Is now really the right moment to conduct negotiations with the Taliban?
No one is more concerned about finding an answer to this question than ordinary Afghans. While the desire for an end to the conflict is genuine, the fear of a Taliban return to power is equally real and quite pervasive. There is a widespread perception that Karzai, in his desperate bid to maintain power, is preparing to sell out to militant pro-jihadi forces even as the country slides into free-fall. Many have rightfully, meanwhile, begun to question the rationale behind cutting deals with an insurgency seemingly intent on killing civilians with impunity and reversing what little progress has been made in the country.
Moreover, how can anyone expect the Taliban to accede to government demands to respect the Afghan Constitution when the president himself shows little regard for the rule of law?
The forces behind this latest turn of events in Afghanistan are driven as much by Karzai's persistent attacks on the sanctity of democratic institutions as they are by an insatiable appetite among those in his inner circle for profits from an economy built entirely on war. Even as preparations for the security transition begin, Afghanistan's political and economic systems appear to be on the brink of implosion.
The decision last week by the Supreme Court-appointed special elections tribunal to remove 62 out of 249 sitting members of parliament following the drawn-out controversy over fraud in the September 2010 parliamentary polls has provoked a constitutional crisis of epic proportions. All of Kabul, meanwhile, is bracing for economic collapse as the standoff between the International Monetary Fund and the Afghan government over much-needed banking reform in the wake of the Kabul Bank crisis drags on. Still, the billions of dollars in international assistance and hollow assurances out of Washington and Brussels keep rolling in.
Less than 30 kilometers outside the capital, the government's presence remains relatively low in the increasingly insecure provinces near Kabul's borders, where nearly one-fifth of the country's population lives. The Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami, and Haqqani network fighters have gained momentum in Afghanistan's heartland, installing shadow governments and conducting aggressive assassination campaigns while co-opting provincial government officials also looking for their cut from the war economy. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have profited tremendously from corruption within Afghan security agencies, which has allowed the insurgency to infiltrate entire units of the police and army in central eastern provinces like Kabul, Ghazni, and Laghman and to extract millions in protection payments from Afghan and international security contractors charged with security NATO supply convoys.
Reversing the perverse incentives of continuing the conflict will require more than holding conferences and issuing strategy papers. Transition will only get messier unless a better balance is struck between taking military action against the insurgency in the south and confronting the factors fueling the insurgency's growth in Kabul. Corruption, lawlessness, and a predatory government are the core drivers of the conflict. If Karzai wants his government to survive past 2014 then he'd be well advised to spend less time cutting deals and more time prioritizing the rule of law.
Candace Rondeaux is based in Kabul and is the senior analyst in Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group (ICG). This week, ICG released a new report, "The Insurgency in Afghanistan's Heartland."
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