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Security Jitters in Afghanistan

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 14, 2011

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Afghan and NATO forces ended a twenty-hour attack (al-Jazeera) by militants on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters in what has been a secure district in Kabul. The episode raised new concerns about Afghanistan's security as NATO forces continue a phased withdrawal. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker played down the attack (WSJ) by calling it harassment, and said the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was responsible for it.

Kabul has seen a string of high-profile attacks (LongWarJournal) this year, at least three major ones since the NATO-led forces handed over the security of the city to the Afghan forces (BBC) three months ago. "The ability of the Taliban insurgents to penetrate the capital's strongholds severely undermines the trust and confidence of Afghan citizens in their security forces to protect them," writes journalist Simon Klingert on ForeignPolicy.com. The Haqqani network has ties to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Such attacks also highlight crucial questions about the ability of Afghan security forces to thwart insurgents. As expert Andrew Exum notes, the ongoing transition in Afghanistan (ForeignPolicy) "rests on the assumption that the country's security forces and intelligence services will be prepared to take responsibility for those areas that are transferred."

The uptick in violence also puts pressure on the United States, which is looking to hand over security to Afghan forces by 2014. Soon after the latest attack, Crocker said the transition is on schedule and that the United States and Afghanistan are working on a strategic partnership agreement to outline the U.S. role beyond 2014. But as a top aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai noted in this interview with CFR.org, the two sides disagree on several points, starting with how binding the agreement should be.

The timing of the attack also raises questions about U.S.-led efforts for a political settlement to the war in Afghanistan through negotiations with the Taliban. The attack reportedly comes soon after the government of Qatar granted the Taliban permission (RFE/RL) to open what amounts to a political office there, with Washington's blessing. Author Frank Ledwidge speculates that attack in Kabul is an attempt by the Taliban (Guardian) to negotiate from a position of strength. On the other hand, U.S. officials believe the Taliban needs to feel increased military pressure (AFP) before the peace talks can make any progress.

Pakistan remains central to any stable future for Afghanistan. The Haqqani network continues to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, and according to most analysts, retains ties with Pakistan's primary spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. Terrorism experts Don Rassler and Vahid Brown note the Haqqani network has functioned as the fountainhead of local, regional, and global militancy. Pakistan's inaction against this group has long frustrated U.S. officials.

Some analysts see the recent acceptance of negotiations with the United States by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, as a sign that a negotiated settlement to end the war (NYRB) is a possibility. But if negotiations fail, some level of U.S. military engagement will be necessary beyond 2014, argues a report from the RAND Corporation. For any prospective reconciliation with the Taliban and for the United States to be able to hand over security to a capable Afghan National Security Force, it must focus on governance reforms in Afghanistan (AmericanInterest), writes CFR's Stephen Biddle. "Civilians systematically dispossessed by a predatory government will inevitably hold their noses and turn to the Taliban for help," he says, and "then no density of security forces will be sufficient to exclude the Taliban."

Background Materials

U.S. War in Afghanistan, CFR Interactive Timeline

"The Clock is Ticking," New York Times

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