Afghan forces still need foreign help

The latest Taliban attack in Kabul - on a hotel which was the scene of a conference on security - drives home the lesson that the Afghan government, and its foreign friends, need to work harder to prepare Afghan forces to stand alone.

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For a nation looking to rid itself of "foreign aggressors", the blaze that burned at a Kabul hotel yesterday signalled more than just a single attack.

The killing of at least 12 people at the Intercontinental raises further questions about the country's ability to protect itself, from itself. In a twist of macabre irony, the hotel was packed with guests in town for a security conference to discuss - what else? - the transition to Afghan-led security.

That discussion might seem an exercise in futility. And yet, it's something that every nation with a stake in Afghanistan's future must immediately consider.

The recent spate of Taliban attacks in Kabul has more to do with a propaganda strategy than military tactics. The insurgents are always killed or repelled, but the statement is made: the Taliban can attack when and where they choose, President Hamid Karzai cannot even control his capital, foreign forces are all that ensure security. That is what the Taliban would have us believe.

Nato forces reported that Afghan security forces responded "incredibly well" to this new attack. But the fact that it took a Nato helicopter gunship to finally defeat the attack speaks volumes about the inadequacy of the Afghan forces on their own.

International observers have warned for years of the deficiencies endemic in Afghan police and army units. More serious than concerns about capability, perhaps, are ones about professionalism. Oxfam International and others have often warned that Afghan security forces are still seen in some regions as little more than government-sanctioned armed gangs. Allegations of child abuse, torture and extortion at the hands of uniformed police are common.

As Nato forces move to the rear, the training of Afghan units will be the single most important factor in the country's future. Building every aspect of security operations, from counterterrorism to military justice, will take a long-term commitment from international partners. It may also be the only way to leave behind any semblance of stability.

Much has been made of peace talks with Taliban factions. This recent attack is a reminder that there will be elements who will not lay down their arms. But the Taliban have been defeated in encounter after encounter - with proper support, Afghan security forces should have the edge.