A suicide attack at the Bagram Air Base underscores the general lack of security (AP) in Afghanistan and the reconstitution of the Taliban. The attacker narrowly missed Vice President Dick Cheney, who was safely inside, but killed more than twenty Afghan workers and a handful of soldiers. Taliban-led forces have stepped up their efforts in recent weeks to undermine the Afghan government ahead of what they promise will be a “spring offensive.” They have launched a number of coordinated suicide attacks (RFE/RL), particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. And their leadership boasts a deep well of recruits, tapping popular antipathy toward the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
The breakdown in Afghan security is attributable to a number of factors, as this Backgrounder explains. Afghan security forces, despite boosting their capacity, have proven ineffective at combating warlords and drug traffickers, according to a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report finds that the police force in particular has had problems retaining officers, and also with corruption and oversight. Militias and local mafias have filled the security void. Conditions on the ground have deteriorated across the board, CSIS finds, with the exception of economic conditions and women’s rights. Unmet expectations have led to flagging public confidence in the Afghan government.
Taliban sympathizers are also increasing in number due to Afghanistan’s dismal economic prospects—it remains the world’s poorest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. “High unemployment is fueling conflict,” writes Barnett R. Rubin of New York University in Foreign Affairs. “As a fruit trader in Kandahar put it to me, ‘Those Afghans who are fighting, it is all because of unemployment.’” As Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S. Said Jawad tells CFR.org's Robert McMahon, lagging reconstruction efforts pose a greater long-term threat to Afghan security than the resurgent Taliban.
Afghan-Pakistani relations also remain prickly. The most divisive issue is Pakistan’s inability—or unwillingness, as some critics say—to halt cross-border attacks by Taliban militants offered sanctuary on its territory. Before heading to Afghanistan, Cheney delivered a strict message to Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, pressing him to rein in (NYT) al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s peripheral provinces.
“There’s a fair degree of consensus, at least in the open press, about the fact that a number of Taliban leaders are operating out of Quetta, Pakistan,” says Daniel Markey, a former State Department specialist on South Asia and current CFR senior fellow, in an interview with CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman. “If we could see some significant moves by the Pakistanis to go in there and round some of these folks up, that could have a very big impact, at least at the psychological level, in terms of the prospects for this insurgency over the next four months.”
J. Michael McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, told Congress “the insurgency probably does not directly threaten the government, but it is deterring economic development and undermining popular support for President Karzai.” U.S. officials also warn of an upcoming offensive by Taliban-led forces. In response, a number of NATO member states have pledged reinforcement troops to help secure the Afghan-Pakistani border region. The UK said it would send 1,400 more soldiers in the weeks ahead (Guardian). Recent NATO efforts to secure Taliban-controlled regions have proven marginally successful, but as the Economist points out, “whether this is real progress, or the result of the Taliban taking their habitual winter break, will become clear only after the snows melt.”