Kabul has been the scene of one of the deadliest car bombings since the start of the war. On Saturday, a suicide car bomber wreaked havoc on Dar-ulAman road close to the center of the city as a convoy of ISAF vehicles, including a military bus transporting foreign troops, was crossing the area towards their man base. Out of more than 17 dead, 13 are international troops under the command of the NATO-led ISAF, making the attack one of the deadliest since 2001 and a stark reminder of the fragile security situation at a time when the country braces itself for the second round of security transition.
The Saturday attack in Kabul once again gives rise to one disturbing question and its answer that is even more worrisome. How and why is it that Kabul is becoming increasingly destabilized and how a relatively large concentration of militant fighters find the capability to organize sleeper cells and safe houses inside the capital city and mount increasingly deadly operations? Attacks of such magnitude and precision cannot be possible without the presence of large numbers of Taliban, Haqqani group members and their able sympathizers in the city and its surroundings.
The fact that Kabul has increasingly been destabilized and has become a scene of a series of deadly explosions and high-profile attacks in recent months points to the increasing infiltration of Kabul by highly-trained militant fighters, who make their way into the capital from the Eastern and Southern provinces. Most of them do so from across the border.
However, the problem of militant groups having found their way into the government's security forces still remains a formidable challenge. In the past, we have seen many instances in which soldiers and security personnel have been caught extending assistance to members of Taliban and other militant groups.
In one case, it came to light that a relatively high-ranking military official had been providing help and assistance to some members of militant groups. Just before the attack in Kabul on Saturday, an Afghan soldier in South opened fire on Australian service members of the NATO training mission, killing three of them plus an Afghan interpreter. This is a very real problem and the Saturday attack once again draws attention to this problem and the fact that sympathizers of militant groups are as dangerous as the militants themselves.
The second round of security transition to Afghan National Security Forces is already underway and reportedly, upto 17 provinces are earmarked for this phase of transition. The first round of transition of security responsibilities with seven cities and provinces handed over to Afghan lead has been relatively a success.
This is largely owed to the strong presence of NATO-led international coalition forces and the fierce counter-insurgency operations being pursued by American forces in conjunction with Afghan security forces across the country.
If the first round of security transition is any indication, the success of the second round would still depend on high concentrations of international coalition forces and their continued provision of assistance to Afghan forces.
So far, it has been the sweeping counter-insurgency operations conducted by the NATO-led forces that have weakened the Taliban in the South and placed huge pressure on militant networks such as the Haqqanis in the Eastern belt.
Therefore, the success of the second round of security transition over the long-run depends on greater operational and logistical independence of Afghan National Security Forces as well as the continuation of counter-insurgency operations by the coalition forces. With a national army that is still dependent on NATO assistance in terms of conduct of its operations and logistics, security transition would not be meaningful.
There are widespread fears that with the withdrawal of greater number of coalition forces from the South and the East in the run-up to 2014, the pressure brought about on Taliban will be weakened. As the ongoing counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations by the coalition become more limited, Taliban might find opportunities to reassert themselves in the Southern belt of the country.
In the lead-up to the 2014 deadline and afterwards, continued support to Afghan security forces of international coalition, particularly the U.S., is critical. Without such a long-term support, it is highly doubtful whether Afghan security forces alone can withstand the onslaught of a re-born insurgency by the Taliban and their allies.
These are the real issues that the international partners of Afghanistan, in partnership with the government of Afghanistan, must address in the lead-up to the planned withdrawal of a majority of foreign troops by 2014. The question of disloyal elements within the Afghan establishment, including the security forces, should be addressed.
The establishment must be cleansed of those elements whose allegiance lies not with Afghanistan's national interests but with a commitment to perpetuate the war since they see their interests preserved in continued insurgency by the Taliban and their allies. In addition, Afghan National Security Forces do need many more years of commitment, assistance and mentoring by the international community.
The financial and political implications of such a long-term commitment must be assessed by Afghanistan's international partners. The financial and political capital needed for the purpose must be marshalled and the cause of building Afghanistan's armed forces kept alive.
Recent reports highlighted the magnitude of the financial burden of maintaining Afghanistan's armed forces at the projected levels. An annual expenditure of more than 7 billion dollars is way out of the reach of the government of Afghanistan.
If there is no clear commitment made on the part of the countries involved in Afghanistan to share this burden, a United States alone cannot guarantee this magnitude of financial resources given its own financial difficulties back home. On the other hand, as the economic crisis continues to deepen in both Europe and the U.S., and with a Euro on the verge of collapse, it is difficult to see if the European countries will be able to finance their efforts in Afghanistan in the years ahead as they have been doing since 2001.
What is required is a large-scale commitment to Afghanistan's future by the international community and the upcoming Bonn Conference provides the ideal platform for this to happen. In the absence of such a large-scale commitment, Afghanistan might very well witness a re-emergence of Taliban in the Southern and Eastern belt with devastating consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the peace and stability in the region.