The Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was anything but the luxurious, serene oasis that it is usually regarded as, during an intense siege that started on the night of Tuesday, 28 June 2011 and lasted until the early hours of the morning. During this gun battle, nine Taliban militants stormed the building and shot indiscriminately at hotel guests, staff and clientele before finally detonating their suicide vests or being shot by the military forces. Such a coordinated attack is yet another show of defiance by an increasingly brazen insurgent movement against the Afghan Government and international forces.
Kabul, particularly in recent months, has been witness to several deadly sieges and suicide attacks. A suicide attacker on 18 April managed to infiltrate the Ministry of Defence compound by dressing in military uniform. More recently, the military hospital in the city’s diplomatic district of Wazir Akbar Khan was the scene of horrific violence when six medical students and 23 others were injured in a suicide bombing on 21 May. This escalation of hostility during the ‘spring offensive’ has culminated in one of the most coordinated attacks by the Taliban so far on one of Kabul’s five star hotels just outside of the main city district.
Eyewitness reports from the scene of the Intercontinental Hotel remarked at how organised the attack appeared. The National newspaper reported that rocket-propelled grenades were launched from the roof of the hotel toward the first vice president's house. The militants had crept through the bushes leading up to where the hotel was located on a hill overlooking the city. Camouflaged by the night and high shrubbery, the attackers were able to avoid police checkpoints on the road and storm the hotel through the garden at the back.
Two suicide bombers then detonated their vests in the lobby of the hotel creating the diversion that the remaining attackers needed to charge to the top of the building. Reports from guests in the building confirm that during the siege widespread chaos reigned. The clientele of the hotel, which included a wedding party and visiting dignitaries, were terrorised by insurgents brandishing machine guns as the hotel was plunged into darkness. The Afghan National Army, who was soon on the scene, had apparently cut the power to the hotel to gain an advantage against the attackers, as the military were equipped with night-vision goggles.
Approximately four hours into the siege at 3am, NATO helicopters arrived to assist the Afghan military forces battle the insurgents. The helicopter snipers killed three of the insurgents on the hotel rooftop, allowing Afghan security forces to make their way up to the roof and tackle the remaining Taliban militants. At the end of the nightlong ordeal, nine Taliban and nine civilians were reported dead with several others wounded.
The Taliban’s reason behind the attack was supposedly to target government officials and security advisors who were staying at the Intercontinental for a two-day conference on the security transition, which was scheduled to take, place the day after the attack. There is now uncertainty about the capability of Afghan forces to have independent responsibility for the security situation as a result of the attacks and the necessary intervention by international forces to ultimately resolve the situation.
The conference at the Intercontinental was an event planned to discuss the transfer of responsibility from international security forces to the Afghan military and police. Preparatory discussions on the transition are being held amid US President Barack Obama’s announcement on 22 June that the USA would withdraw 33,000 troops from Afghanistan by autumn 2012. Talks are currently being held between international forces and the Taliban to foster dialogue for a resolution to the decade long war. The Intercontinental attacks are a formidable setback to the perceived progress being made and the feasibility of a military withdrawal date of 2014.
Questions are already being asked about how much the international forces really do know about the Taliban and various other insurgent groups in Afghanistan. Speculation is rife that, although the Taliban claimed responsibility, the attacks were actually carried out by an independent insurgent group affiliated with the Taliban called the Haqqani network. CNN reports that an official source corroborates this claim. If there is veracity in such claims then one forced to wonder how progressive will talks with the Taliban ultimately be when the true enemy is not discernible.
The Haqqani network is a group originating from North Waziristan in Pakistan. Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqani leads the group along with his son Sirajuddin Haqqani. It is believed that the group maintains old links with the Inter-Services Intelligence, the secret service of Pakistan, and that is the reason why the Pakistani government has not displayed conviction in taking action against the network. The network has claimed responsibility or is believed to be responsible for a string of attacks that occurred in Afghanistan, most notably those against Indian targets. For instance, the 14 January 2008 Serena Hotel attack, the 7 July 2008 Indian embassy attack and the 18 May 2010 Kabul bombing are all alleged to have been the work of the Haqqani network. If the Haqqani network were indeed responsible for the Intercontinental attacks this throws even more doubt against the intended transition of security forces to local Afghan authorities.
The US forces cannot afford to suffer further embarrassment after they were duped last year when a Quetta shopkeeper posed as the Taliban’s former aviation Minister, Mullah Mohammed Akhtar Mansour. The shopkeeper was able to meet twice with Western officials before they realised they had been tricked. Fostering dialogue with the Taliban has been a significant change in tactic for the allied forces, which had previously refused to entertain the notion of negotiating with the opposition. With the increasing dominance of independent insurgent groups and warlords the question is whether the offer of the olive branch has come too late.
If the talks are not carried forth in the appropriate way it could lead to further segmentation of the Taliban, an organisation that already seems disparate and elusive in its operations and nature. However, what is evident from the nature of the attacks and the failure of the Afghan forces to control the attacks, is that a political resolution will be much more effective than a military solution. As Bette Dam, who was a witness to the attacks on the Intercontinental asserts, the political crisis in Afghanistan needs to be addressed. The political gameplay that has allowed factional components to seek favour at their own will is intrinsic to the fundamental problems of corruption and lack of faith in the Government of Afghanistan.
The decline of centralised power is inversely related to the rise of militant insurgents that paradoxically appear to be growing more organised in their activities yet more transient in their membership. This latest attempt to thwart security representatives entering into meaningful discussions about the county’s security situation augments the predicament for international forces as to how engage an increasingly fragmented and intransigent enemy. Clearly there are power structures in force in Afghanistan that it is not in certain parties’ interests to see dismantled. The people behind these power structures are the real enemies of security in the country, but ascertaining the enemy has always been the toughest challenge in Afghanistan.
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