While American attention has drifted to Haiti, a failing state heart-wrenchingly close to home, Hamid Karzai's ramshackle government in Afghanistan is still very much in the crosshairs of the resurgent Taliban. On Monday, the Taliban demonstrated that even the safest corner of the country, the administrative heart of Kabul that is home to the fortified presidential palace and the central bank, is terrifyingly vulnerable. Though only a handful of Afghans died, dozens were injured in a suicide attack that will not-so-subtly change the calculations not only of Afghans but of the thousands of American and European civilians that the country badly needs to rebuild its battered institutions. Indeed, this attack follows successful attacks against a U.N. compound last fall that rattled the crucially important community of expatriates and that sent hundreds of them back home.
What will it take for Afghanistan to become the central issue for U.S. voters, a logical goal for a Taliban eager to drive U.S. forces out of the country?
The gun battle took place in the aptly named Pashtunistan Square, the name of which is a tribute to the rugged Pashtun borderlands that have seen Afghanistan's heaviest fighting. The great conceit of the war in Afghanistan has been that while terrorism is endemic in contested regions in the south and east of the country, its largest cities are fundamentally secure. Indeed, securing and extending the island of security around the country's biggest cities is a linchpin of General Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy. Now, as the Taliban continues to learn and evolve in response to intensified military and diplomatic pressure from U.S. forces, the cities are the target of a particularly brutal form of psychological warfare.
In a sense, what we're seeing is the Taliban's answer to the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong and North Vietnam launched a coordinated attack on all of South Vietnam's administrative centers during what was supposed to have been a two-day cease fire marking the country's New Year celebrations. Though South Vietnamese and American forces achieved a stunning tactical victory in the counterattack, the communist forces achieved their central goal of weakening the resolve of their opponents and demonstrating that they would not simply melt away. One has to assume that this attack is just the first of many, and that the Taliban's goal is to steadily raise the tempo of violence between now and the midterm elections in the U.S.
Perversely, the attack was prompted by the Afghan government's efforts to reach out to the Taliban, from the rank-and-file members that allied forces have been wooing for years now to Hamid Karzai's somewhat quixotic effort to extend an olive branch to Mullah Omar, an architect of the Taliban's rise and an intimate associate of Osama bin Laden. And what better to say "thanks but no thanks" than to bring the fight within a few yards of where President Karzai sleeps.
The most encouraging news, if you can call it that, from Monday's attack is that Afghan forces managed to contain and repel it without the direct involvement of U.S. forces. Part of the Taliban's strength is the nationalist legitimacy it derives from fighting the occupation, and the painfully slow strengthening of Afghanistan's security forces is crucial to achieving lasting success.
One question that remains unanswered is whether Karzai's outreach effort has struck a nerve. Though very few Taliban militants have switched sides so far, it is at least possible that the leadership is rattled and eager to demonstrate that the Taliban and not the government holds the upper hand. President Obama's surge strategy is underway, and the U.S. effort won't reach full strength for months. Whether or not the U.S. achieves its wider strategic aims, flooding heavily contested provinces with Marines will lead to the deaths of many Taliban fighters and there is a clear logic to indulging in a bravado-enhancing terror campaign before that happens. Senior U.S. officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is now touring South Asia, has poured cold water on the outreach effort, gently suggesting that Afghan and U.S. forces will have to inflict serious damage on the Taliban before they start negotiating.
The fact that the attacks in Afghanistan failed to dislodge Haiti from the headlines raises an intriguing question: What will it take for Afghanistan to become the central issue for U.S. voters, a logical goal for a Taliban eager to drive U.S. forces out of the country? It could be that a slightly more sedate news cycle will do the trick. But as American attention remains tightly focused on the state of the economy, it is possible that Obama's surge strategy will have the political breathing room it needs to succeed. That, alas, might be the only good sign to come out of Monday's grisly attack.
Reihan Salam is a fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.