The Taliban's brazen assault on the luxury Serena Hotel in the heart of Kabul on Jan. 14 could signal a disturbing new turn in the Afghan war.
Six civilians were killed in the attack, perpetrated by four armed men wearing police uniforms -- two of which detonated suicide belts.
The scene was more reminiscent of Baghdad, the scene of daily terrorist attacks and sectarian violence. Kabul has largely been spared the intense fighting that has engulfed the south of Afghanistan during the past three years. The fact that the attack occurred within metres of the walls to the presidential palace, the most heavily fortified part of the city, has many in the country deeply concerned. If the Taliban spokesperson is to be believed, this is only the first of a wave of attacks to come on Western civilian targets in the capital.
In the past, U.S. military officials have pointed to major Taliban offensives or shifts in tactics as evidence of its "desperation." Adopting this creative logic, the chief of Afghanistan's intelligence service, its national directorate of security, expressed in a news conference that the attack demonstrated the Taliban's weakness. That kind of spin only veils the reality that the security situation continues to spiral and, far from being weak, the Taliban have shown themselves to be resilient and gaining momentum.
American frustration over the deteriorating security situation was exposed last week when U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that NATO forces "don't know how to do counter-insurgency operations." The criticism coincided with the announcement that 3,200 additional marines would be sent to Afghanistan, joining the roughly 40,000 NATO troops and 12,000 coalition soldiers currently deployed there. While Gates would later downplay his remarks, it struck a raw nerve with NATO allies like Canada, Britain, and the Netherlands -- who are bearing the brunt of the fighting in the volatile south.
NATO's inability to muster the troops and resources needed to meet the demands of the Afghan mission, coupled with the insistence of some member states to place restrictions on how their forces can be utilized, has hobbled the counter-insurgency campaign. However, the failings of NATO are not solely responsible for the current upsurge in insecurity. Rather, it is the continued weakness of the Afghan government that poses the most salient threat to the post-Taliban order.
Six years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the Afghan state remains unable to deliver basic services to its population and is rife with corruption. No single institution reflects this crisis more than the Afghan National Police (ANP), which could be considered the most dysfunctional body in the country.
Despite the investment of billions of dollars of international aid to reform the ANP, the force remains poorly trained, underequipped, heavily factionalized and corrupt. According to one report, up to 80 per cent of Afghanistan's interior ministry, which oversees the ANP, is involved in the lucrative drug trade.
To many Afghans the police are a source of insecurity rather than a solution to it. The incompetence of the police has been a direct cause of NATO tactical setbacks in the south. Since NATO and Afghan national army forces lack the manpower to remain in areas that they have cleared of Taliban fighters, they must rely on the police to provide this holding function, a role they have been unable to fill.
The need to prioritize police reform is now widely recognized in the international community, resulting in a major funding boost from the United States, which amounted to over $2.5 billion in 2007. It is critical that these funds not be used merely to militarize the police -- a phenomenon seen in Iraq -- but to make it more responsive to the security needs of the population, thereby enhancing public confidence in the state.
Moreover, reforms of the police will only bear fruit if corresponding attention is dedicated to the floundering and under-resourced efforts to overhaul the Afghan judiciary and corrections systems. Police can only be effective in the context of a well-functioning rule-of-law system.
The rumoured appointment of Lord Paddy Ashdown, the man who steered Bosnia-Herzegovina's postwar transition from September 2002 to May 2006, as United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, could provide a needed boost for the country. Ashdown is a champion of rule-of-law reform in post-conflict contexts and is well respected in both the military and development communities. It's believed he will be granted greater powers than his predecessors, allowing him to better co-ordinate the multiplicity of international actors involved in Afghanistan and inject more coherence and vision into the strategy of the international mission. His impact will depend, however, on his relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who is alleged to have been wary of the appointment due to concerns that Ashdown's extensive powers could undermine Afghan sovereignty.
The growing crisis in Afghanistan is, not surprisingly, severely testing Canadian and international resolve. If the Afghan state-building process is to be placed back on track, countries such as Canada must reaffirm, not scale down their commitments.
Accordingly, the Manley panel report's central recommendations, to tie Canada's commitment to the success of the mission rather than an arbitrary deadline, and to refocus it on the training of the fledgling Afghan security forces is a positive step. The report's proposal to place clear conditions on the continued commitment -- the assignment of an additional 1,000 NATO troops and air assets to Kandahar to support the Canadian contingent -- will send a strong signal to the NATO alliance that Canada will no longer bear a disproportionate burden of the ongoing fighting in the south.
Just as important, the government's adoption of the measures outlined in the report will reward the Afghan people for their continued support of the internationally-sponsored reconstruction process and ensure that Canada's considerable investment in the country will not be squandered.
Unlike in Iraq, where the population views the U.S. as an occupier and is desperate to see it leave, the majority of Afghans have steadfastly endorsed the international presence in their country. As long as that support endures success will be possible.