After Serena, not so serene

The attack on a fortified hotel in Kabul is a pointer. After six years of reconstruction, why is insecurity increasing in ravaged Afghanistan?

Aunohita Mojumdar Kabul   

An attack on Kabul's swish Serena Hotel earlier this week may have seemed like yet another incident of violence to most outside observers. But for those living in Afghanistan it represented yet another level of escalation in the ongoing violent conflict. It was not that the attack was on the rich and elite of Kabul city, nor that the attack targeted expatriates in contrast to the daily attacks which kill Afghans everyday, but that it breached one of the most fortified sites in the capital, the poshest hotel in Kabul, rebuilt by the Mumbai-based firm Shapoorji Pallonji. The attack showed the reach of the anti-government elements. This was no straightforward suicide bombing, the one phenomenon against which most security agencies say they have no defence. This was an armed attack which allowed the entry of  gunmen who managed to carry out a shooting spree before they were stopped.

Though Afghanistan has been a 'post conflict' State for more than six years since the ouster of the Taliban in the American-led attack, violence has worsened in many parts of the country while parts of southern Afghanistan are embattled by continuous conflict. Sporadically, districts of the southern provinces slip out of the tenuous hold of the Hamid Karzai government into the control of the Taliban — till yet another pitched battle frees the area. Kabul the capital, relatively incident free in the first two years after the removal of the Taliban, now sees sporadic incidents of violence in the form of rocket attacks, shootings, kidnappings, bomb explosions and suicide bombings that seem to be increasing their penetrating power.

Unlike Iraq, the 'invasion' of Afghanistan had considerable support among sections of the Afghan population. However, like Iraq, America's military intervention there had more to do with its own politics and rather less to do with Afghanistan. The direct military response to 9/11, saw the removal of the Taliban, the regime which had lent support and shelter to Bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives. That the Taliban also had a wretched human rights record and a worse record on women's rights helped build the case for the military intervention.

Unfortunately, the inability to broaden this narrow objective has meant that much of what has happened in Afgha-nistan in the past six years has had more to do with donor-driven interests and less  with the ground reality in the country.

It is no one's case that Afghanistan has not benefited from six years of 'reconstruction'. In a country where almost all infrastructure and economy had been destroyed, gains, though incremental, are clearly visible. Hundreds of schoolchildren including young girls going to school, millions of refugees returning to the country, greater access to health and the buzz of new construction. A new Constitution was introduced, a presidential election and a parliamentary election were held with less disruption than any of the Bihar polls. Visitors to Kabul might be forgiven for thinking the country has turned around, and all that is needed to spread the prosperity is time. They would be wrong.

Along with the incremental growth over the last six years are very serious systemic flaws that are even now creating new problems and making the State dysfunctional. The issue is not that progress has been slow in a very difficult place, but that many of the policies of the international (western) community are intrinsically unsound. At best, this has resulted in a short-sighted approach, putting immediate gains before sustainable goals. At worst, the interests of Afghanistan have been subverted to the interests of the international community — whether it is in terms of withholding resources or in prioritising needs.

Nothing illustrates this with as much damning evidence as the security sector. In 2001, the Bonn agreement, that provided the framework for rebuilding of the country, did not make a peace accord, but focussed on establishing a working government. Subsequently, military operations continued in areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda were thought to be hiding, under America's Operation Enduring Freedom a part of the 'war on global terrorism'. UN mandated NATO forces, which had a broader mandate of helping secure Afghanistan, were confined to the narrow geographical boundary of Kabul. It was not until 2004 that they would begin to expand, their further expansion coinciding with the regrouping of anti-government elements, including the Taliban. At no time was the military focused on the stabilisation of Afghanistan or on securing areas that were 'cleared' of the Taliban. The result: after every military defeat the Taliban would melt away, only to return as soon as the foreign troops left, thus leaving the local population with no support, security or stakes in the military operations.

Even now, security operations in the country are compartmentalised into three distinct slots. The global war against terror is led by the US-led Coalition Forces (largely US troops under US command and control), the counter— insurgency war is waged by NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, (largely NATO troops) and the war against drugs is led by the Afghan police. This approach rests on a naïve presumption of the lack of interlinkages between the three problems, undermining the efforts to deal with each of them. The compartmentalisation has also resulted in very different tactical approaches to the military operations being conducted, resulting in confusion and controversy.

The reluctance of the western nations to put boots on the ground has also resulted in sparse deployment of troops. The upshot is heavy reliance on air power with its concomitant “collateral damage”, the euphemism for the killing of civilians. The consequence of this is increasing public hostility which is bolstered by the UN's apparent inability to take a firm stand on this issue. Despite some sporadic statements calling for an end to the high civilian casualties, no effort has been made to document or investigate these charges in a systematic manner, an effort that would go a long way to restore public confidence in the government and the international community, as well as blunt the edge of public anger fuelled by injustice.

While the disinclination of troop-contributing countries to contribute greater numbers has some validity, it is less evident why the western nations failed to pursue the one goal that would have helped reduce Afghanistan's dependence on them — the building up of Afghanistan's forces, both the army and the police. Instead of focussing on strengthening the legitimate use of force, the international community, faced with growing instability, has now endorsed the rearming of communities through the auxiliary police, a euphemism for giving guns and power back to the very same commanders who they spent five years trying to disarm. The consequences of this short-sighted approach will be visible in Afghanistan in the coming months and years.

Last but not the least, is the pendulum approach to the 'Taliban'. Though anti-government forces are of different kinds, the demonisation of the Taliban and efforts to apportion a monolithic identity to all anti-government forces has led to a limited understanding of the problems of power-sharing in this complex land. Six years after the Taliban were ousted from power, the pendulum of policy swings between making peace with the Taliban as the only way forward to deporting those who are talking to them.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Kabul