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.