It was obvious that Kabul was eerily too quiet in recent months and the unusual calm was a sign of the storms to come. The lull before the storm was shattered on Saturday, June 18, 2011 when a group of suicide bombers attacked in the heart of Kabul and killed 9 people and injured another 12. The target that was picked by Taliban this time was a police station in Kabul's busy Mandeyi (food market) where the people and authorities expected the least possibility of a Taliban attack.
This attack in the heart of Kabul on Saturday was by far one of the most audacious strikes by Taliban and another reminder of the militants' resolve to spread seeds of chaos and despair among both ordinary Afghan people and government authorities alike. More than the material damage that the Saturday attack caused, it carried symbolic significance for the Taliban and their leaders. By striking at the heart of Kabul and where there is high density of unsuspecting ordinary people going about their daily works and where there is no significant military presence except for a simple police station, Taliban leaders want to send out a clear message.
This message is of course primarily intended for the government of Afghanistan by reminding the government of their capability and willingness to strike anywhere and anytime at will. For Taliban and other militant groups that collaborated with Taliban by providing them with the suicide bombers and other logistical assistance, the Saturday attack is an exercise in psychological warfare. The message, in addition to the government of Afghanistan, is also intended for the ordinary Afghan people. This time, it is evident that Taliban militants have decided to target not the government forces but the confidence and faith of the people in the security situation and the ability of their government and foreign forces to provide security. The site of the attack was Kabul's main Mandeyi(food market). People have responded with shock and disbelief at the militants' decision to attack a place more associated with ordinary Afghan people than the government; let alone the international coalition forces. The militants are clearly trying to sow fear and a sense of helplessness among common Afghan people by targeting public places such as Kabul's food market.
The Saturday attack can very well be the start of a new phase of operations by Taliban militants in which they will focus more on destabilizing urban population centers and intimidating the ordinary people. Creating fear, anxiety and a sense of vulnerability in the minds of common people, as a time-tested military strategy, is vital for Taliban militants at a time when they are engaged in negotiations with the governments of Afghanistan and the U.S.
The message is also intended for the international community, the western media, the western public opinion and the western governments particularly the U.S. and the U.K. which are engaged in negotiations with Taliban and their leaders. It is evident that the Taliban leaders by planning and executing this high-profile attack would like to convince those in the western media and the western public opinion that they are too powerful to be ignored and too resourceful and resilient to be defeated. For Taliban leaders, such spectacular attacks are symbolically significant rather than operationally. Such symbolic attacks have the effect of making the government of Afghanistan look feeble and unable to maintain security even at the heart of its capital barely a few kilometers away from the Presidential Palace of the country's president. It is quite interesting to know that behind such acts of bombing and attacks by Taliban there is this kind of shrewd and strategic thinking pursued by their leaders.
As the process of negotiations, although yet with no clear outcome, continues between the government of Afghanistan and Taliban on one hand and the U.S. government and Taliban on the other, it is certain that Taliban leaders will escalate their campaigns of bombing and terror across the country. The Taliban leaders and commanders have shown in the past that they actively receive help from other militant groups such as the Haqqani network and the smaller militant outfits that have sprouted in Pakistan's tribal areas. For example, many suicide bombers that target Afghan and NATO forces on Afghan soil are purchased in return for money from militant groups based in tribal areas. According to reports, suicide bombers, indoctrinated and trained in tribal areas, are routinely sold to other militant groups that are active in Afghanistan. The money that comes from such deals is then used to finance other activities of militant groups based in tribal areas.
It is indeed a bitter irony that as the attempts at negotiation with Taliban has increased, so has Taliban's boldness and audacity. On the day of the attack in Kabul, it was extensively reported that the United Nations Security Council had separated the blacklist of Taliban leaders from that of Al-Qaeda. In the western media, such attempts at appeasing the Taliban through cowering in front of them are passed off as genuine attempts at resolving a conflict through dialogue. While there can be no doubt that dialogue can be one instrument for resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, appeasing and surrendering the moral high ground to Taliban is certainly not the way to resolve this conflict. There have been reports that the U.S. has offered the Taliban control of southern regions in return for Taliban putting halt to the insurgency and letting the U.S. go ahead with its plans of long term/permanent military bases. While the authenticity of this report cannot be confirmed yet, it has given rise to further concern in Afghanistan regarding the future of talks with the Taliban.
Anyhow, Saturday's attack has once again highlighted the problems that the security and intelligence agencies of the government of Afghanistan have in detecting and foiling such terror attacks. There can be no doubt that intercepting and foiling such type of attacks can be extremely difficult given the porous border and the vast number of militant units active inside Afghanistan. On the other hand, it reveals the pressing need to strengthen the security and intelligence agencies, increase their institutional and operational capacities and forge greater links of cooperation with other countries in the region to tackle these security threats in a joint manner.