The combined attacks on government installations including the parliament and Nato garrisons in three separate districts have driven home one message loud and clear: Afghan security forces trained by the United States are hardly in any shape to takeover from the International forces in 2014. Though the battle raged on for hours on end and there was little damage done, the reputation of the newly trained Afghan forces has taken a serious hit, particularly so because insurgents were able to hit some of the best defended sites in the capital and elsewhere.
Hence, from both a psychological and tactical point of view, the purpose of driving home the message that the Taliban are far from a spent force has been achieved. Whilst Afghan forces have been showered with accolades for their ability to neutralise the threat after 18 hours of battle, the fact that well-armed groups were able to penetrate into areas considered to be "safe havens" has rattled nerves. As pointed out to by a well-known Afghan member of parliament Wazhma Frogh who was caught up in the crossfire: "I was nearly shot in the back as I was walking down the street, not by a terrorist but by the Afghan police who were just shooting at everything. They had no idea where they were firing."
The sophistication of the latest attacks highlights one thing: The insurgents, whoever they may be, have learnt to launch and coordinate simultaneous attacks on a variety of targets in different parts of the country. All this requires meticulous long-term planning, significant resources in terms of a solid support base that provide safe housing to dedicated teams of fighters and storage of a variety of weaponry. The other revelation, and one that is far more disturbing, is that the Taliban have access to excellent intelligence about security measures in and around the capital. On the contrary, Afghan security forces had little or inkling about the series of attacks that shook the country on April 15.
So where does that leave the Obama administration with its planned withdrawal from the country in 2014? There is no denying the fact that Afghanistan has not been subjected to this sort of a firefight since 2001. While attempts are made to show the world how it was Afghan forces that ultimately quelled the violence, the fact that groups of armed fighters were able to get rockets fired off at the parliament whilst the house was in session shows how woefully inadequate preparations are on the government side to ensure safety and security in the capital, let alone the whole country. A decade of occupation has not brought peace to war-ravaged Afghanistan. And with time running out for the Karzai government in the backdrop of an imminent US withdrawal, the first tentative steps have been taken to reach out to the opposition in the hope of finding a peaceful solution through a political peace process.
Yet here too there have been problems. The willingness to talk to some Taliban factions whilst ignoring others have not helped matters. Once an ally of the West in the fight against the Soviets, Hekmatyar has since 2001 turned out to be a formidable foe to both Kabul and Nato forces. As pointed out by Vali Nasr, a onetime adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the late Richard Holbrook, President Obama's envoy to the region, "Hekmatyar was seldom discussed. He was seen as the smallest and least powerful of the three elements of the Taliban: the Quetta Shura, The Haqqani Network and Hizb-e-Islami. He is a local problem, rather than a strategic one."
Yet, this "local problem" has now become a major problem. There is little doubt that the latest attacks were indeed masterminded by Hekmatyar's faction. The timing of the attack could not have come at a better time given that Nato and allies were in the final phase of putting together plans for transition of security to Afghan forces. Given current realities on the ground, it can safely be stated that the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 will result in total chaos returning to the country. The local Afghan forces obviously have a long way to go before they are in a position to tackle a force as formidable and resourceful as the Taliban.
Since the military "option" has been exercised for the greater part of the decade and not achieved a resounding victory for either side, there is no recourse but to sue for peace for the government at the center should it wish to survive. However, the latest show of force by a newly rejuvenated Taliban in all its various shades and hues, they will in all probability drive a hard bargain at the negotiating table. It would be wise not to set preconditions for talks, for the boot is no longer on Karzai's foot and time unfortunately is running out fast for a negotiated settlement that would see Afghanistan return to the fraternity of peaceful nations.
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.