In January, Kabul endured three deadly attacks. On January 20, the Taliban stormed Kabul’s InterContinental Hotel, killing 30 people (mainly foreigners) in a siege that lasted 14 hours. A week later, Taliban militants drove an ambulance into a designated safe zone, killing at least 95 people and injuring 158, while ISIS claimed responsibility for attacking the Marshal Fahim Military Academy west of Kabul that killed 11 Afghan soldiers. President Trump responded by contending that there could be no negotiations with the Taliban. And though his State of the Union address only briefly discussed foreign policy, the president vowed not to stop fighting until ISIS is defeated.
But neither the Taliban nor ISIS is the key to understanding what’s going on in Afghanistan. Even turning attention toward Pakistan as a source of Afghanistan’s instability is proving to be unsatisfactory for those concerned about the region. So what do the Kabul attacks tell us?
Most observers of the U.S. war in Afghanistan consider the attacks a signal from Pakistan in light of current tensions within the U.S.–Pakistan relationship, which is currently at its lowest point. Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has a notorious relationship with the Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other militant groups. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, both India and Afghanistan have blamed Pakistan for continued militant violence in Afghanistan. For example, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United Nations, alleged that the Kabul Hotel attack last week was organized in Chaman, a city in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.
And Pakistan may feel compelled to send a message because of the Trump administration’s decision to come down hard on Pakistan. For example, President Trump singled out Pakistan’s support of militant groups and accused the state of providing them safe haven in the administration’s Afghanistan strategy and National Security Strategy documents last year. The administration subsequently cut Pakistan’s security aid. Pakistan, however, continues to maintain that it has eradicated all terrorist safe havens, and also claims that its leverage with the Taliban has been decreasing.
Yet it’s unlikely that the U.S. will do much to censure Pakistan, even if it is truly complicit in these attacks. The United States will threaten to cut aid (and has periodically with little success), or designate Pakistan a state-sponsor of terror (which has never happened), or remove its designation as a non-NATO ally (which has also never happened). Pakistan, meanwhile, will threaten to close NATO supply routes (which has happened multiple times) and end intelligence sharing (which has periodically happened), with both sides threatening joint counterinsurgency operations.
Instead, the Trump administration ought to be grappling with bigger questions. It is indeed concerning that Pakistan’s fingerprints may be on these attacks, but at the end of the day the United States has very little leverage over Pakistan. As with sanctions, cutting aid to other nations rarely alters state behavior.
Instead, the U.S.’s best bet is to find a political—and diplomatic—solution for Afghanistan that involves a continued focus on Afghanistan’s domestic security forces as a means to stabilize the country, rather than honing in on Pakistan and aggravating an already tumultuous relationship.
These attacks are rooted in the current failure of the Afghan government to keep the country secure. Violence in Kabul has been steadily increasing, even as the Taliban have become weaker since the U.S. invasion. Afghanistan is becoming a desired destination for militant groups, including the ISIS–Khorasan, an offshoot of ISIS. Afghan government administrations have been consistently weak, and Afghani citizens often blame them for not providing sufficient security. For example, after the attack on the military academy, those living in the compound primarily blamed the Afghan government, even saying that current leaders should resign if they are unable to increase security.
With regard to the war in Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers need to grapple with two realities. First, the U.S. can’t successfully achieve a stable and sustainable end its military engagement in Afghanistan without Pakistan’s partnership. And second, a reasonable and stable political outcome must involve the Taliban. Although the president declared his unwillingness to work with the Taliban, in the past the U.S. has been open to talks with the Taliban as a way to foster peace. In fact, the United States worked closely with Germany to convince Qatar to allow the Taliban to open its office in Doha in 2012. While the President has also been pushing Afghanistan to close the Taliban’s Doha office, experts have argued that closing the office would undermine chances of peace in Afghanistan. Finally, despite appearances, the Taliban have been using diplomacy to increase their political legitimacy. By not talking with the Taliban, the U.S. risks losing any leverage it may still have to broker a suitable political agreement in Afghanistan.
The past sixteen years have clearly shown that America and its allies can’t defeat the Taliban. And since the Taliban and other militant actors are not conventionally strong enough to defeat U.S. and ally forces, they will continue to target civilians. In other words, if the United States hopes to stabilize Afghanistan and withdraw its troops in the next few years, it must focus on increasing Afghanistan’s domestic security, improving its relationship with Pakistan, and being open to holding peace talks with the Taliban.