Jolted out of Afghan fatigue by audacious attack

The audacious Taliban gun battle in the heart of Kabul has added urgency to next week's Afghan conference in London.

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The attack was daring in its scope and timing. Shortly before 10am on Monday, a man wrapped in a densely woven patu blanket that keeps away the winter chill was turned away from the central bank building near Kabul’s Pashtunistan Square by a suspicious security guard.

He headed for a shopping centre down the street and blew himself up with the explosives concealed under the patu. It marked the beginning of a six-hour battle between 20 heavily armed insurgents and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers, the epicentre of which was Pashtunistan Square, roughly the equivalent of Times Square in New York or London’s Piccadilly Circus. As the two sides exchanged gunfire, just a few dozen metres away President Hamid Karzai’s new cabinet ministers were taking the oath of office in a solemn ceremony inside the presidential palace.

The fighting continued all day inside a shopping centre, cinema and on the streets as the heavy buzz of American Blackhawk helicopters droned low over the city. Terrified civilians fled in every direction. By the end 12 people were dead, including seven militants. It is doubtful the insurgents could have entered the heavily secured palace but the message was clear: the rural-based insurgency was capable of bringing the fight to Mr Karzai’s doorstep in the capital and there was very little his supporters in the world’s most powerful armies - all with headquarters in Kabul - could do about it.

A clearly rattled spokesman for Mr Karzai appeared on television that evening and denounced the fighters as “wild, hairy things”, dispensing with the usual formal, almost courtly language of political discussions. Monday’s attacks have added a sense of grim urgency to the London conference on Afghanistan next Thursday. Diplomats and politicians from dozens of countries will converge on the Georgian splendour of Lancaster House to discuss how to fight the insurgency and corruption and set a timetable to transfer responsibility of security from foreign forces to the Afghans.

Over the past week, major donor nations led by Britain and America have embarked on a highly co-ordinated military and diplomatic strategy in Kabul, Washington, London, Islamabad and New Delhi to shore up lagging international support ahead of Thursday’s conference. All eyes will be on Mr Karzai ,whose relationship with his allies deteriorated following accusations that he rigged the presidential election in August. On his last trip to Washington, President Barack Obama did not give him a one-to-one audience, a frosty contrast to the Afghan leader’s cosy relationship with George W Bush.

Sceptical Nato nations facing recessions at home and paying for Afghanistan’s reconstruction will expect to hear a convincing argument that his next five-year term will be different from the incompetence and mismanagement of the past. “We think it’s important that he outline a clear strategic vision for his country that the international community can support,” said a western diplomat in Kabul. “We expect a clearly articulated plan.”

But he will arrive in London with only half a cabinet - 14 ministers were sworn into office as Monday’s carnage unfolded because the lower house of parliament twice rejected his nominations as incompetent, unknown or corrupt before it adjourned for winter recess. Will he be able to convince Afghans and his allies a new chapter lies ahead? “That’s one of the core questions and the jury is out,” said a western source familiar with the conference. “His challenge is to reinvent himself and shed some of the people around him who have misled him. He has been isolated from the population.”

A broad reconciliation plan with the Taliban is being put together in Kabul which would offer jobs and vocational training to tens of thousands of mid- to low-level fighters to entice them to switch sides. The Americans, however, have flatly ruled out making a deal with Mullah Omar, although senior Afghan officials have indicated that they were willing to talk to the one-eyed Taliban leader, believed to be hiding in Pakistan.

“This is a mechanism and a programme for those Afghans who desire a peaceful life and want to take advantage of opportunities to do so,” said Omar Samad, the Afghan ambassador to France, speaking from Paris. “We’ve made it quite clear we have a desire for a long process of reconciliation and reintegration.” While the Afghans were ironing out the details, Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, flew to India and Pakistan to tackle the regional dimension of the insurgency. In New Delhi, he warned Indian leaders that south Asian militants were trying to ignite a regional war, before he travelled to Islamabad to urge Pakistan’s military chiefs to strike against the Afghan Taliban leadership who have found refuge in Quetta and the tribal areas as well as the Pakistani Taliban.

“Maintaining a distinction between some violent extremist groups and others is counterproductive: only by pressuring all of these groups on both sides of the border will Afghanistan and Pakistan be able to rid themselves of this scourge for good,” Mr Gates wrote in a comment piece in The News newspaper, published to coincide with his arrival in Islamabad on Thursday. Domestic support for the war in Britain is decreasing and the Afghan conference is also expected to set a timetable for troop withdrawal as early as this year and hand control district by district to the Afghans.

To this end, the Afghan government and its partners agreed this week to increase Afghan army and police force strength to approximately 305,600 by the end of 2011 from the current total figure of 191,000. Police recruits will have to be pumped out of training academies to keep to the target. It’s not clear who will pay for the training. The starting base is pathetically low. In Kandahar, which is severely hit by the insurgency, the Canadians began training the recruits, nearly all of whom are illiterate, by teaching them how to read numbers so they could recognise licence plates.

“How do you really recruit a decent police force?” asked Peter Galbraith, the former UN deputy special representative, who was removed from his job in September because of disagreements with his boss Kai Eide, the UN special envoy, over how to handle the fraudulent presidential elections. “They have an eight-week course. You can’t make a policeman in eight weeks ... take an illiterate person and make him a policeman. In western countries they have a one-year programme.”

The badly paid police are also notoriously corrupt, which feeds into the insurgency. The accountability agenda will play a major part in next Thursday’s conference and Mr Karzai is expected to present a plan on how he will reform the government, judiciary and security services. He will have no doubt felt the embarrassing pressure of the United Nations report released earlier this week which stated that Afghans paid a staggering US$2.49 billion (Dh9bn) in bribes in 2009.

The scope of the corruption is tragi-comic. Nato’s supply lines in the south stay open because the transportation companies pay money to the Taliban along the lawless roads to allow them safe passage through insurgent checkpoints. In other words, western taxpayers are giving the Taliban millions of dollars a year to allow Nato’s armies to fight them. Other observers said Nato and its allies must also shoulder responsibility for the deteriorating situation because no one has a proper strategy to build up Afghan institutions.

“The waste that has taken place has to be addressed as well,” said Mr Samad. “Maybe 10 cents out of every dollar in donations is realised on the ground while the rest is all part of administrative and other expenses. The fact that 80 per cent of funding doesn’t go to the Afghan government needs to be addressed. Institutions within the Afghan government need to be bolstered in order for us to deal with better governance.”

To help change this, Nato is expected to announce a new top civilian post in Kabul to lead the civilian effort and co-ordinate the political and military plans. Meanwhile, Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of US and Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is putting together a team of Nato officers dedicated to counterinsurgency in Kabul. His deputy, Lt Gen David Rodriguez, an Iraq veteran like his boss, will be in charge.

“There is a whole Iraq team that’s re-forming,” said Christopher Langton, a retired British colonel at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “There was a concern that several countries were executing their counterinsurgency strategy through, if you like, their embassies and countries, and ISAF command had no real control over what was going on.” Life has returned to normal in war-weary, stoic Kabul. Vendors hawking the winter’s crop of pomegranates and pine nuts are back on the streets and traffic jams have returned.

But there is a recognition on the part of both the Afghan leadership and the West that fatigue with the Afghan project will set in unless the situation turns around soon. “Realistically, everybody agrees that Afghanistan is not a one- or two-year undertaking,” said Mr Samad. “We need to focus and accelerate the process of reform and reconstruction because we need to realise at some point fatigue will set in. But we are doing this while we are being attacked. We are trying to rebuild ourselves in an unstable and menacing situation.”