Cluster of deadly attacks in Afghanistan lay bare lack of U.S. strategy

ISIS, the Haqqani Network, and the Taliban step up slaughter of Afghan civilians after Trump freezes military aid to neighboring Pakistan.

Afghan medical staff treat a wounded man after a car bomb exploded near the old Interior Ministry building, at Jamhuriat Hospital in Kabul on January 27, 2018. CREDIT: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images.
Afghan medical staff treat a wounded man after a car bomb exploded near the old Interior Ministry building, at Jamhuriat Hospital in Kabul on January 27, 2018. CREDIT: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images.

An attack on a military academy on the outskirts of Kabul on Monday resulting in 11 deaths is the latest in a string of attacks that point to a worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

This is taking place at a time when the United States seems to lack a coherent policy on the country where America is fighting its longest war — one in which a winning strategy has always been elusive, and ground continues to be lost.

Over the weekend, a Taliban suicide bomber used an ambulance in an attack in central Kabul, killing more than 100 people, the majority of them civilians. The week before, a Save the Children office was targeted. A few days before that, the Intercontinental Hotel in the capital was attacked. The civilian death toll has been breathtaking, even for a country that has watched its own be slaughtered by wars, the Taliban, and now, increasingly, by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) which is also gaining a foothold there.

President Donald Trump has had little to say about Afghanistan, but has been ramping up tensions with its neighbor, Pakistan. On January 1, Trump threatened to cut off some of the security assistance that the United States provides to Pakistan because, he tweeted, Pakistan gives “us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”


When less than a week later it was announced that $2 billion in military aid would be suspended, Pakistan bristled and struck a defiant tone in response.

Kabul-based journalist Ali Latifi told ThinkProgress that there is a sense of frustration in Afghanistan.

“There’s this question of ‘Why does this keep happening? How much longer is it going to keep happening?'” said Latifi, adding that while many Afghans were happy to hear of President Donald Trump challenging Pakistan to “do more” to aid security in Afghanistan, the sentiment, he said, is largely, “Okay, he’s saying these things, but where is the action? What is the result?”

Although U.S. troops are also certainly in the line of fire in Afghanistan, those who stand to lose the most over his acrimonious stances are the Afghan people.

“Does angering Pakistan really help people? Does it really help us?” said Latifi.

Looking at attacks by the Taliban/Haqqani network, Michael O’Hanlon, senior foreign policy fellow specializing in U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan at the Brookings Institute, told ThinkProgress that, “They may sense an opportunity to create an atmosphere of fatalism, further weakening the government and driving away the diaspora such that those who can move, do so. They do this at the risk of making themselves even less popular, given their brutality.”

“But if they can make the government collapse, they may not need to be popular to gain power. They may also be trying to push back against stepped-up U.S. airpower,” said O’Hanlon, answering questions via e-mail.


While he said he doubts the Afghan government will collapse — and thinks that Trump is right to eliminate any timeline for troop withdrawal — O’Hanlon said that what’s lacking is a clear way to convince Pakistan to align itself with U.S. and Afghan interests and work to “reduce the violence” in its neighboring country.

“If we are going to play hardball, we probably also need a credible vision for how our relationship could improve if they [Pakistan] crack down on the Afghan Taliban and Haqqanis, and need to communicate that consistently and persistently so it is believed. But it’s going to be tough no matter what,” he said.

The idea is that “the U.S. is the world’s super power — it has all of the money, it has all of this leverage, it’s an ally of Pakistan — it should know what to do,” said Latifi. Afghans are anxious for the United States to take some kind of action against Pakistan, such as military pressure or tough sanctions, similar to the ones imposed on Iran and Cuba.

There are still over a million Afghan refugees in Pakistan — some of whom fled during the war with the Soviet Union starting in 1979 — whose lives are in limbo.

Now, Pakistan is threatening to send back as many as a million Afghans at once — something Latifi said would “completely destabalize the country.”

Between the Taliban, ISIS, and the Haqqani network, there has been a steady tick-tock of death in Afghanistan, where a December 27 suicide bombing in Kabul resulted in 41 deaths. Not that the less deadly attacks — such as the ISIS attack on the Save the Children offices in Jalalabad (73 miles east of Kabul) on Wednesday, which left six dead, and the attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel on January 20, which resulted in 22 deaths — are any less shocking.


While these attacks don’t target the civilian population at large — the Intercontinental is not for workaday Afghans — the fact they took place at all is unsettling to the general population.

“The fact that it [The Intercontinental Hotel] got attacked scares people because it’s on a hill, it’s supposed to be super secure. I’ve seen governors there, I’ve seen ministers there, the president went there … if that place can get attacked, well, then, what’s next?” said Latifi of the attack carried out by the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based arm of the Taliban. Indeed, the hotel, like many of those frequented by dignitaries and foreigners, is protected like a fortress.

Among those affected by Saturday’s ambulance attack — which resulted in over 100 deaths and 230 injuries — were the merchants on the city’s famous Chicken Street, a small quarter of shops selling textiles, traditional Afghan jewelry and crafts.

So the aim of the attack, said, Latifi, was clearly to kill civilians, because while the attack was near the old Ministry of Interior (MOI) building, much of the staff and operations have already moved to the MOI’s new quarters.

“And if you’re really targeting the old MOI building, why not — like with [Monday’s attack], at the Marshall Fahim Academy, they tried to go into the academy — try to go into the old MOI building with gunmen?” said Latifi.

All of this, he said, means heavy security precautions for the capital: The continuing presence of barbed wire and blast walls and unending roadblocks and security checks, with the resilience of Afghan people continuing to be tested.