A string of deadly attacks in Afghanistan exposes government weakness, limits of US training effort
By PAMELA CONSTABLE | The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2018
Three deadly attacks in Afghanistan's capital have killed more than 130 people in just over week, a nearly unprecedented urban terrorism blitz that seemed likely to prompt a sobering international reassessment of Afghan defense capabilities as the Trump administration begins building a new, ramped-up military presence and intensified combat training role.
Afghans reeled in shock and anger Monday after an insurgent attack on a military training academy followed the overnight siege of a hotel Jan. 20 and a huge midday suicide bombing Saturday on a busy downtown block near a government hospital. The assaults also left more than 300 people wounded.
The spate of violence, which included an attack on a British charity in the eastern city of Jalalabad, raised fresh questions about the government's ability to protect both its citizens and foreign visitors, who were specifically targeted in the siege at the Intercontinental Hotel and the Jalalabad assault on Save the Children.
The cascade of attacks, with some claimed by the Taliban and others by the Islamic State, came as the insurgents made aggressive advances in several far-flung rural areas. The violence seemed to mock government claims that Afghan forces are holding their own in the grinding 16-year conflict and that insurgent attacks on high-profile "soft targets" are a showy substitute for waning battlefield prowess.
In a meeting with U.N. ambassadors Monday, President Donald Trump said "innocent people are being killed left and right" and suggested peace talks with the Taliban are no longer on the table.
"We don't want to talk with the Taliban," Trump said. "There may be a time, but it's going to be a long time."
Taliban spokesmen called the orchestrated attacks part of their "annual offensive" and gave no hint that they are inching toward peace.
"The bottom line is that no one is safe in Afghanistan," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, wrote Sunday in an online essay. With the Taliban holding large portions of Afghan territory and the Islamic State expanding from its rural base to the capital, he added, "the terrorists are on the offensive."
Kugelman said the string of attacks represent a "dangerous escalation" that has highlighted the "daunting challenges" still faced by the United States in Afghanistan. "What we're seeing now is a relentless Taliban combined with a resilient Islamic State. That's a recipe for deep levels of sustained instability," he said in an email Monday.
Attacks that target international humanitarian groups and hotel guests could strike a blow to critical aid programs, potentially reducing the number of foreigners who are trying to help the poverty-stricken, war-torn country.
Many international aid and development agencies have already scaled back or halted their programs in Afghanistan because of insecurity. Diplomatic security agencies have warned foreigners not to venture into the streets and to expect further attacks at hotels, shops and other locations. Most restaurants catering to Westerners have closed.
President Ashraf Ghani, facing a new barrage of criticism for his government's inability to provide security, sought to deflect blame to next-door Pakistan. Appearing at a news conference Monday afternoon with Indonesian president Joko Widodo, Ghani said the Taliban had staged the attacks on the orders of their "masters," a likely reference to Pakistan.
Other Afghan officials have publicly blamed several of the attacks on the Haqqani Taliban faction, a group they accuse Pakistan of sheltering. The Trump administration, after repeatedly asking Pakistan to rein in the Haqqanis, recently suspended all military aid to the longtime military ally. Pakistan has denied the charges and has issued statements denouncing each of the recent attacks.
The Afghan public, however, focused its fear and frustration largely on its own government — much as it did last May and early June, after a massive truck bomb in Kabul's diplomatic zone killed 150 people and injured more than 300. The May 31 bombing triggered days of street protests and demands for top security officials to resign.
This week, on social media, in TV interviews and in conversations outside emergency rooms and shops with shattered glass windows, residents expressed bitter disillusionment and contempt for the Ghani government, saying it had failed to bring security and had become snarled in political battles rather than protecting and assisting people. Many people called on security officials to be fired.
"The people in charge of security organs lack leadership, experience and professionalism. That's why we are witnessing growing insecurity in the country," said Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a political analyst. He said the government was making political deals to survive that led to poor appointments, especially in security posts.
"People have become disappointed, they do not trust this government, and they see it as a failure," he said.
Ghani, at his news conference, said he intended to make "reforms" in the security sector but did not elaborate. "Reforms in our intelligence services and ministry of interior are our top priority now," he said. The top security and defense leadership has been changed several times in the past year, but criticisms of high-level corruption and rivalry have continued.
"People are furious at the Taliban, but more angry at the government because their expectations of the government are much higher," said Scott Worden, an official of the U.S. Institute of Peace who is in Kabul. "The question for the next weeks is whether the government can channel people's anger and frustration toward ways they can work to defeat the Taliban, not just at Pakistan for providing safe havens."
Kugelman said the deadly urban attacks "accentuate the importance of improving Afghan intelligence-gathering capacities. The big question is why do these attacks keep happening and why can't the state stop them? The sobering reality is that terrorists are exploiting major security vulnerabilities and poor state intelligence capacities."
He said that the beefed-up U.S. training mission "can help plug these capacity gaps," but that the deep inadequacies in government performance combined with the "determination and cleverness of the terrorists" make longer-term solutions "elusive."
In the most recent attack, a combined suicide bombing and gun attack before dawn Monday outside the Marshal Fahim military academy left 11 Afghan soldiers dead and 16 wounded, defense officials said. After detonating a bomb, the attackers used rockets, guns and hand grenades to enter a military security compound. Officials said the assault was quelled after five hours, with four attackers killed and one arrested.
The Islamic State claimed responsibility, but some Afghan officials said it was the work of the Haqqani network. The simultaneous spurt of attacks by both Islamist militant groups has caused confusion and speculation about the relationship between them. In the past, some Taliban fighters have joined the Islamic State regional faction but others have opposed its barbaric methods.
Constable reported from Islamabad. Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Walid in Kabul contributed to this report.