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Kabul attacks hit home the Taliban's propaganda war

Recent Taliban attacks on Kabul reveal just how thin and fragile the foreign efforts to bolster Afghanistan's government have really been.

A string of high-profile attacks in Kabul, from the killing of a former president to this week's assault on an American CIA base, has laid bare what analysts have been speculating about for some time: not only has the fight been brought to Kabul's doorstep, the Taliban are also winning the propaganda war.

Western officials had hoped to downplay the Taliban's resurgence, and reports do suggest that the attack on the CIA compound may have been carried out by a disgruntled employee. But the 20-hour gun-battle in front of the US embassy earlier this month, for instance, was dismissed as an ineffectual propaganda coup. And when a Taliban envoy, dangling the prospect of reconciliation talks, assassinated the former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the hard truth was more painful.

By killing Rabbani, who aside from being the head of the Peace Council charged with negotiating with the Taliban was also a divisive former warlord himself, the Taliban delivered a silencing checkmate to the Karzai government and the Nato coalition. Not only were they rejecting dialogue but also taking out one of the government's most powerful allies.

And they did something even more damaging: they managed to regain control of the headlines.

This is troubling for many reason. Many analysts with knowledge of Afghanistan predict that 2014 - the deadline for a western pullout - will find the state no closer to offering basic services such as education and electricity than it was back in 2001. The departure of US and Nato troops is expected to contribute to such a collapse in security that it will jeopardise the very capacity of the state to respond militarily.

Unlike the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the current western presence will leave very little infrastructure in the form of electricity substations, dams or residential projects. Meanwhile, Pakistan's influence is expected to skyrocket, especially if former Taliban leaders now sheltered in Pakistan's tribal areas enter the government.

Although Nato and the US embassy dismissed the spectacular attack that paralysed central Kabul for nearly a day last week as a propaganda stunt, it marked one of the longest and most brazen assault inside the capital. Shortly after the siege ended, the US ambassador Ryan Crocker called the attack "not a very big deal", and pointed to Kabul's traffic as a more considerable obstacle to life there.

Yet this was not a universal view. Saudi Arabia immediately ordered its diplomats to burn all documents in their Kabul embassy and leave Afghanistan in great secrecy, without even notifying the Afghan foreign ministry. The move may not have reflected a break in diplomatic ties so much as Saudi jitters over its embassy's proximity to the same square from where the US embassy was attacked.

But the reference to all documents being burnt had a certain finality about it. If the Saudis are getting out of Afghanistan, then something very bad indeed is brewing.

The comforting illusion fostered by recent attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and British Council - that only outlying districts are within the Taliban's ability to strike - has been replaced by the reality that militants can do damage where they please. And part of the reason is a stumbling Afghan security apparatus.

Squads of local community policemen selected and trained by US special forces have been set up in recent years in rural areas where local rivalries resulted in the security forces being too ethnically one-sided. In northern Afghanistan, the Pashtun-majority Afghan local police overcompensate for the dominance of Tajiks in the Afghan national police. Their very existence is a tacit admission of failure in the project of constructing an independent and nonsectarian Afghan army.

As the smoke cleared on the recent US embassy assault, the enduring question was how the attackers had managed to penetrate so deep into Kabul's security.

Western diplomats and spies questioned the extent to which the Afghan security forces collaborated with the attackers in facilitating their stockpiling of weapons in the building site. In the streets of Kabul, even opponents of the Taliban wondered at the militants' ability to fight for so long in Afghanistan's most secure real estate.

But of even greater concern are American charges that the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network was behind the embassy assault as well as other attacks. With US-Pakistani relations yet to emerge from the all-time low they hit after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and with the Afghan government anxious to derail US negotiations with Taliban leaders favoured by Pakistan, we can expect no letup in such violence.

A year and a half after the surge of US forces was announced, what progress have we seen? Taliban fighters can still parade in broad daylight inside a captured former US base a few kilometres from Kabul. And they can launch attacks in the very heart of the city.

The past decade has witnessed successive reductions of expectations over the future of Afghanistan. From setting out to build a model society in its own image, the West diluted its expectations to merely seeking the establishment of a security state. Then it shifted again, to merely hoping that the structure would survive its withdrawal, if not permanently, then at least long enough to quell the certain chorus of critics that will grow louder.

Now, it may be occurring to the generals inside Nato and US headquarters that the whole creaking edifice is collapsing even before their last troops are out.

 

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and photographer who splits his time between Istanbul and Kabul

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