PJ Crowley: Taliban dish out tough lessons in Kabul

Two men carry a charred car part
Municipal workers in Kabul clear part of a car used in a suicide attack

Recent attacks in Afghanistan by insurgent groups raise troubling questions about the future of the country.

Last autumn, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress that the Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan is "to fight, talk and build all at the same time."

The Taliban and their allies made clear yesterday, through co-ordinated attacks in Kabul and three other Afghan provinces, that they retain the ability to seriously challenge that strategy.

The major question in the aftermath of the attacks is what they say about the Taliban's willingness to negotiate a political settlement. The strikes suggest that while the United States and Nato prepare to end the existing combat mission in 2014, it remains unclear if the opposition is prepared to do its part.

Yesterday's events did not significantly alter the status quo. Notwithstanding Afghan President Hamid Karzai's accusation that this was an intelligence failure, nothing that happened is really a surprise.

The Taliban were quick to take credit, claiming the attacks were retaliation for recent US actions, including the burning of the Koran at US airbase and alleged murder of 17 Afghan civilians by an American soldier.

"Our spring offensive has begun," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid.

Self-inflicted wounds

There are some indications that the attacks also involved the Haqqani network, which the US accused of staging a dramatic attack against its embassy compound last September.

In one sense, the insurgency simply picked up where it left off at the end of 2011. Its message is straightforward.

While you are preparing to leave, we are still here.

To the extent that insurgents win by not losing, this has significance. It certainly undermines Nato's narrative that the Afghan Taliban is on the defensive.

Besides Afghan and international installations, a secondary target of the attacks was international public opinion, particularly in the US.

The unfortunate string of self-inflicted wounds has taken its toll on domestic support for the ongoing Afghanistan mission. A New York Times/CBS poll late last month suggested two-thirds of Americans now oppose the continued military involvement in Afghanistan.

But it is not clear the Taliban's spring salvo will have a significant political impact or accelerate the pace of the planned Nato transition.

A clear message

Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration have managed the political fallout from the Koran-burning and attack on civilians - and the public ire they generated inside Afghanistan - reasonably well.

Afghan soldiers patrol a street
The performance of Afghan soldiers appears to have improved in recent months

The White House made two crucial concessions to Mr Karzai in the aftermath, granting Afghanistan both leadership and oversight over controversial night raids and transferring responsibility of the key detention facility.

These steps have opened the door for negotiations that are now under way on a new status of forces agreement that could enable a follow-on military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

This is what the Obama administration desired in Iraq, but could not achieve.

A follow-on force, existing mostly of special forces, would continue the ongoing training of Afghan national security forces. The performance of the Afghan military is improving, although high rates of illiteracy and attrition will limit its overall effectiveness for some time.

The US and international training program is improved, and is the ultimate key to the US strategy by providing the Afghan government the tools to defend itself. That effort will not be completed by 2014.

Afghanistan recognises it will require significant American and international support long after the existing combat mission ends. Refining the size of a sustainable Afghan national security force will be a key topic of discussion at the upcoming Nato summit, to be held in Chicago in May.

An extended US presence in Afghanistan would send a clear message both to the insurgents and Afghanistan's neighbours, most particularly Pakistan: "We aren't leaving."

Waiting game

While Afghanistan continues to improve its own capability, the United States will continue to apply pressure to the safe havens in Pakistan's loosely governed tribal areas that drive the insurgency.

And, unlike the US experience in Vietnam, it will hang around and enforce whatever political agreement might be negotiated over the next two years.

Which leaves the major question in the aftermath of yesterday's attacks: are the Taliban prepared to negotiate a political settlement?

Man walks through buildings with shattered windows
A policeman patrols a building damaged by insurgent attacks in Kabul

There have been preliminary talks between the US and Taliban about a negotiation that would ultimately have to involve the Afghan government and critically gain the support of other regional players.

Early this year, the Taliban announced it would open an office in Qatar to facilitate ongoing talks. However, they were suspended last month in the aftermath of the Koran-burning and the attack on civilians.

It remains to be seen whether and when the Taliban will signal a willingness to resume. It is unclear whether Pakistan, whose intelligence services provide support to both the Taliban and Haqqanis, is prepared to support a negotiation without a larger role in its eventual outcome.

It is possible the Taliban will use its spring offensive to acquire political leverage before resuming talks about talks. On the other hand, this may signal that not all elements of the Taliban and its friends desire or see the need to negotiate at this point.

Those responsible for yesterday's attacks may have their own strategy: fight, continue to undermine the existing Afghan government and wait for the Americans to leave.

PJ Crowley is a former US Assistant Secretary of State and now the Omar Bradley Chair at the Penn State Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs and a Fellow at the Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at The George Washington University.