On Saturday, January 20, six men disguised in army uniforms launched an attack within Kabul’s InterContinental Hotel, holding it under siege for over 12 hours and killing 22 people, including Americans. Harrowing accounts of survivors are emerging, with many saying that the attackers were looking for foreigners specifically and killing them on the spot. Some survivors jumped out of windows while most were rescued by Afghan security forces, who acted swiftly.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, though Javid Faisal, the deputy spokesman for Afghanistan’s executive office blamed the Haqqani Network, a militant group that fights Afghan and U.S. security forces in Afghanistan and has close ties with Pakistan. In fact, the Trump administration has called on Pakistan to end its support of militants and eradicate domestic safe havens as a myriad of D.C.-based analysts dissect Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban and Haqqanis.
While the United States and India both denounced the attack and praised the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces for their bravery, Pakistan’s condemnation seemed to be conditional. Mohammad Faisal, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted “We reject the knee jerk allegations by some Afghan circles to point the finger at Pakistan” and instead, urged for a credible investigation into the attack.
The attack highlights three important—and troubling—aspects of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and its deteriorating relationship with Pakistan.
First, violence in Kabul has not only been on the rise these last few years, but has also become predictable. For example, just a few days before the attack, the U.S. State Department had issued a warning about the increased likelihood of hotels in Kabul being targeted by extremist groups, and urged all to remain alert at all times, keep a low profile, and ensure that cells phones were fully charged. In 2017, in their quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that civilian casualties and targeted attacks on Afghan military, police, and Special Forces have been the highest since 2009. This latest attacks shows that the trend may continue in 2018 regardless of an increased U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
Second, even though the Taliban took responsibility for this attack, there are two more powerful insurgent groups that could have easily orchestrated an attack: the Haqqani Network and the ISIS–Khorasan (ISIS–K) group. The Haqqani Network, along with the Taliban, have been an ongoing source of tension between the United States and Pakistan, while ISIS–K’s expansion along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border poses a new set of counterinsurgency challenges for all three states: the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The third, and most significant, aspect of the Kabul Hotel attack is that it highlights the urgent need for a reassessment—or rather reopening—of realistic and pragmatic diplomatic avenues. The Taliban and Haqqani Network both have been growing stronger: while they may not be able to militarily defeat U.S. and NATO forces, they have proven time and time again that they can’t be defeated. As of September 2017, the Taliban controls over 40% of Afghanistan’s territory—the most since the onset of the Global War on Terror.
Pakistan is currently pursuing a strategy that consists of a combination of persuasion (i.e. trying to convince the United States that all safe havens have been eliminated), tough talk (i.e., threats to stop intelligence-sharing and suspend NATO supply routes), and restraint (i.e., measured response to Trump tweet). At the forefront of this strategy is Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, Aizaz Chaudhry, who has spoken at Carnegie, Georgetown University, and George Washington University, explaining Pakistan’s position and its relationship with the United states. This week, at CSIS, he said that Pakistan’s relationship with United States must be “preserved and strengthened” with a focus on resettling Afghan refugees currently residing in Pakistan back to Afghanistan—even by force.
In the aftermath of this recent attack in Kabul, Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban and the Haqqani Network is irrelevant—and useless—for U.S. interests in the region. Instead, this attack should serve as an opening for the United States, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to come to the table to ensure that this does not mark a renewal of violence in Kabul and beyond. For Pakistan, this attack puts it at a crossroads: Pakistan can either continue to lend its support to the Taliban and Haqqanis despite experiencing a decrease in leverage or it can shift its domestic counterinsurgency to target both groups. The latter will require Pakistan to be more transparent and the United States to be more open to dialogue.