DANGER ZONE

Taliban’s New Strategy: Attack the Cities

This week alone, the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and the offices of Save the Children in Jalalabad came under fire. Dozens died, including Americans.

NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/GETTY

KABUL—The horror continues: Two recent attacks on foreigners in Afghanistan—one on Sunday targeting the iconic Intercontinental Hotel on a hilltop in Kabul, and one on Wednesday against the offices of the Save the Children charity in Jalalabad—are meant to show that the government here cannot protect its people or those who come to help them.

And that, clearly, is the lesson many people in Kabul are taking away from them in an atmosphere of fear that is fed not only by the calculated violence of the Taliban and the so-called Islamic State, but by kidnapping and other crimes linked to warlords, and a deeply corrupt system of governance.

At least 22 people were killed in the Intercontinental attack, including 14 foreigners. The U.S. State Department confirmed on Tuesday that several were Americans but would not give out further details. In the attack on Save the Children, at least five people were killed and 27 wounded during a 10-hour siege.

As a visitor to Kabul, one makes accommodations. When I come here to report, for instance, I am aware that in all of Kabul there are only two hotels where I am insured, and as it happens the Intercon is not one of them.

Symbol of modernization and progress that it may have been when it opened in 1969—before the Soviets, before the mujahideen, before the Taliban and before the Americans—it now stands out mainly as a target. But even so, with its balconies that have commanding views of the entire city, it still attracts many Afghans and foreigners who think it’s worth the risk.

I stay in another, insured, highly protected hotel, which I am not naming for security reasons. But I have to endure humiliation at the gate, where a guard ignores my reservation, telling me, “Pakistan and Afghan nationals are not allowed to stay here.”

In such an environment, the Taliban have found it fairly easy to develop their strategy vis-à-vis the capital and other cities. They do not need to conquer them. By targeting foreigners they demonstrate the danger that faces the much less well protected general population even as they encourage the strangers, for so they are seen, to pack up and go home.

The attacks widen the gulf between those most in need, and this who could help.  They spread terror, disappointment, anger—and questions. Why can’t the government deliver security? Why can the Americans not win their longest war, one that has seen the birth of three generations here?

The insurgent strategy is, in fact, a classic one used in many guerrilla wars, most notably in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive of 1968, which began 50 years ago this month. There, the guerrillas were defeated and decimated on the battlefield, but won in the minds of their enemies.

“The Taliban and ISIS attacks are everyday business,” Muhammad Khshiwal, a 30-year-old taxi driver, told The Daily Beast.

Jamshid Ali, a 23-year-old student, notes there was an alert. “The city was locked down,” he said. “Warnings and messages were passed to all concerned departments. But why was the Intercontinental Hotel not better protected? That was a very obvious target. Inside Kabul, the government is very corrupt. Outside, the Taliban are killers. We are between Evil and the Devil.”

That it’s often hard to determine direct responsibility for the attacks only increases the air of uncertainty. Afghanistan’s version of ISIS has claimed the attack on Save the Children, but its connections to the Taliban and their supporters—sometimes a rivalry, sometimes not—raise questions about who “really” was behind the Jalalabad incident.

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A senior commander in the Haqqani Network, a faction of the Taliban allegedly enjoying support from elements of the Pakistani military, told me that in 2011 when Badrudin Haqqani, the son of the group’s founder, attacked the Intercontinental, “we proudly admitted it. But this time we were not behind it. It was another Taliban group.”

In a strange parenthesis, the commander bragged, “We have plenty of bombers in Kabul—more than dozens. We even had one of our bombers kill another Taliban bomber [by accident]. One was chasing a high ranking official and blew himself up, killing the other bomber [who was after the same official].” He declined to give the official’s name.

The commander’s responses suggest just how random some of the violence can become. “Once a bomber or bombers are dispatched, we lose control over them,” he said.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told CBS 60 Minutes there are dozens of suicide bombers and there are bomb factories here.

The Daily Beast asked Taliban sources why they are stepping up attacks in the cities.

“The U.S. airstrikes have forced a lot of Taliban to lay low and stay calm in the countryside,” said on in Helmand, southern Afghanistan. “As a result, to keep the heat up, we are attacking more and more in Kabul.”