Urban Terrorism in Afghanistan

A post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder for [looks at watch] 15 months. Dated, but worth publishing.


The recent suicide truck bombing in Kabul was the deadliest in a long series of attacks targeting Afghanistan’s capital and highlights an important component of the insurgency’s strategy against the Afghan regime and supporting coalition forces. Kabul was the target of an extensive urban terrorism before, during the communist era, and an examination of this earlier campaign yields insights into the strategy of the current insurgency, its assessment of the political situation within Afghanistan, and the identity of the forces who orchestrated the attack.

Throughout history, all of Afghanistan’s would-be conquerors have identified Kabul as the natural seat of power: the one city capable of exerting a degree of influence over the entirety of a country fractured by geography and ethnicity. Located at the confluence of several large valleys, Kabul is the central node for transportation and communication in eastern Afghanistan, and has been home to the few government institutions that Afghanistan managed to develop.

Naturally then, the Soviet-supported communist government of the 1980s was centered on Kabul, and it thus became a primary target for the Mujahideen resistance, orchestrated by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence and supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency. Mohammad Yousaf, the ISI general who coordinated the Afghan campaign from 1983 to 1987, described in his memoir the centrality of Kabul in the anti-communist campaign:

Kabul has great strategic importance. As we at ISI appreciated, so long as a communist government controlled Kabul it controlled the nerve centre of the country. To win the war we had not only to push the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but also to eject the Afghan communists from Kabul. Only with the Mujahideen ensconced in the capital would the world recognize our victory. Such was General Akhtar’s belief, such was our objective. In order to achieve it Kabul had to burn. (p.144-5)

It was impossible for the guerrilla Mujahideen to take Kabul by direct assault, but the ISIS assigned such importance to the city that they attempted a short-cut to victory by collapsing the city from within. There were 3 components of this strategy: (1) isolate the city from supplies and facilities by attacking lines of communication and infrastructure supporting the city; (2) bombardment of regime facilities with long-range artillery rockets; and (3) an extensive campaign of urban terrorism, which Yousaf politely described as “sabotage and assassination from within,” and illustrated with some vivid anecdotes:

These attacks could range from a knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar to the placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office … The latter included placing a bomb under the dining-room table of Kabul university in late 1983. The explosion, in the middle of their meal, killed nine Soviets, including a woman professor. Educational institutions were considered fair game, as the staff were all communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma. To the Mujahideen this was corrupting the youth of the country, turning them away from the true faith of Islam. (p. 146)

Unsurprisingly, this campaign was not enough to seriously threaten the regime’s hold on Kabul, and with Soviet assistance the security cordon around the capital was expanded and the Mujahideen were pushed further away from the city. The very idea that guerrillas could somehow conquer an enemy capital without a military victory borders on fantasy, but that apparently did not discourage the ISI. When the Soviet Union began to wind down its direct military involvement in Afghanistan, the ISI tried to revive the plan to topple the Najibullah regime, thought to be weakened by the absence of Soviet forces. This plan failed when the Mujahideen directed their energies to and ill-advised on Jalalabad in 1989, much to the chagrin of their ISI handlers, who remained fixated on Kabul:

General Akhtar had an obsession with Kabul. He was adamant that attacks on Kabul should have priority over all others. If a Commander made known to the general that he wanted heavy weapons to hit the city, then he was well on the way to getting them, even if I was opposed. Keeping the pressure on the capital was the fundamental theme of our strategy. If Kabul fell we had won the war – it was as simple as that. (p. 151)

The current terrorism campaign in 2017 has the same objective of overthrowing the capital, and though its targeting is more indiscriminate, the strategy guiding it is more sophisticated and effective. Whereas the campaign in the 1980s targeted the regime and its security services directly, the bombings in recent months are undermining the regime’s legitimacy by attacking the population’s sense of security.

The May 31 bombing on the edge of Kabul’s Green Zone is illustrative of the strategy. A truck bomb was detonated near the German embassy during morning rush hour, killing 150 people and making it the deadliest terrorist attack in Kabul history. The objective of this attack was revealed in the days following the attack, when on 2 June violent protests at the government’s failure to provide security resulted in 5 dead at the hands of Afghan security forces. So in the eyes of the populace, not only had the government failed to protect them from terrorists, they killed them when they dared protest that fact. Days later, 3 suicide bombers struck a funeral for Salim Izadyar, a prominent victim of the protests, killing another 18 people.

The object of the entire attack cycle was revealed by a very clever tweet by Abdulqahar Balkhi, a Taliban spokesman and a wily social media operator, that appealed directly to the natural inclinations of President Trump and his political base:

#Kabul imploding, warlords about to launch turf wars, great opportunity for @realDonaldTrump to throw in towel & let savages to [sic] own devices

To recap: first, a devastating truck bomb targets civilians in morning rush hour, in an attack designed to generate the maximum body count. Days later, ethnic-nationalist rhetoric is used to gin up violent protests against the government’s failure to prevent the attack, resulting in the security forces killing additional citizens, and the funeral of one is subsequently attacked by suicide bombers. Chaos threatens to envelop the Afghan capital, and a Taliban representative invites the American President to quit the mire. A well-orchestrated series of events that strongly suggests that the tentacles of the ISI still reach deep into Afghanistan, and its old strategy of chaos and mayhem remains active.


Return address: ISI?

Afghanistan, Democracy, and Strategy



Yesterday, Afghans defied Taliban threats and endured a number of attacks across the country as they lined up to vote in Afghanistan’s third major election since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Apparently, several hundred polling stations had to close due to security concerns, but there were no spectacular attacks that succeeded in derailing the election. Overall, this was a successful election for an underdeveloped and war-torn country.

It was also an expensive and misguided exercise in futility.

The notion that a stable and centralized democratic state can survive in Afghanistan is one of the more egregious examples of the hubris underneath Western political idealism. And yet, it has been one of the central pillars of the strategy that has guided operations in Afghanistan for the past 8 years, burdening the U.S. and its allies with an impossible goal. As the West continues to learn quite painfully, democracy is a final product; not a precursor. Economic development, political stability, military security, and a political culture that values individual liberty must exist before democracy can take root; not the other way around. An op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor summarized the problem well:

Democracy is not a coat of paint. A feudal society in which women are still treated as property and literacy hovers below 10 percent in rural areas does not magically shortcut 400 years of political development and morph into a democracy in a decade. The current government of Afghanistan’s claim to legitimacy is based entirely on a legal source – winning an election. Yet this has no historical basis for legitimizing Afghan rule. The winner of today’s election will largely be seen as illegitimate because he is elected.

The much-hyped “new” counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan (which is in fact a classic counterinsurgency strategy) seeks to rob the Taliban of  legitimacy by protecting the population from their intimidation. According to this plan, the Taliban would eventually lose the support and acquiescence of the population, leaving them to wither on the vine. That is all well and good, but it presumes that the Afghan government will be strong enough to develop a higher quality of life for its people. And therein lies the flaw of the strategy; the U.S. and its allies – along with the Afghan National Army, the only strong institution in the country – is creating the security shield for political and economic development that will not be occurring, because a centralized Afghan government is an oxymoron. Development that does occur will be done by the U.S. and Co., and even this effort will be hobbled by the decrease in political control caused by the pretense of an effective government in Kabul; the U.S. has shackled itself to a rock.

This is not to sound defeatist. If the U.S. is willing to expend sufficient blood and treasure on its present strategy, then victory is eventually assured, though it will be a hard slog. Building a state is not cheap, and that is what the current strategy requires.

However, a much simpler and inexpensive strategy has always been available. It is past time that we embrace it. Why exert ourselves for decades as we defy the currents of a tribal society when going with the current is so much easier?

There is only one vital U.S. interest in Afghanistan: prevent terrorist elements from basing there. A feudal society is perfectly compatible with this objective. Instead of hopelessly campaigning to expand Kabul’s writ across the country, allow the local warlords and tribal leaders to exercise the power accorded them by the tradition and religion that has governed Afghan society for millennia. The U.S. merely needs to set down a  simple list of conditions for these political entrepreneurs: (1) Do not allow Taliban or Al Qaeda to base in the regions they control; (2) acknowledge a symbol of Afghan national unity, perhaps the president and the ANA; (3) rule well. Let it be known that the U.S. will support those that meet these conditions, and it will remove those that don’t. The Afghan National Army could serve as the one national institution that binds the many local power centers together and dampens the centrifugal forces that decentralization would create.

This strategy might appear cynical for the U.S., which has expended so much prestige on a crusade to bring democracy to the Middle East. But it has the benefit of harnessing Afghan society as an ally in the struggle. Transforming Afghan society is as impossible as it is unnecessary.

So much for Plan A...

So much for Plan A...

In the 19th century, the British Empire sought a stable and allied Afghan state as a political buffer to keep Russian influence out of India. When Dost Muhammad – the Afghan regent – began tilting toward the Russians, the British targeted him for removal in order to demonstrate British power and deter the Russians and any other wayward states. So they replaced him with a more compliant ruler, Shah Shuja. The British did not allow Shuja to rule in the necessary fashion, however. They were confident that their passive garrisons would be effective symbols of power and Shuja’s rivals would be duly intimidated into submission. The British were wrong, and their garrisons were annihilated in a calamity that became known as the First Afghan War. It was a traumatic lesson for the Empire, but they absorbed it well: Afghans respected the action of power, not the symbol of it. After the “Army of Retribution” marched through Afghanistan and exacted revenge for the humiliation, Afghanistan came firmly back into the British orbit. The preferred client ruler may not have survived, but the key objective of keeping Russian influence at bay was accomplished. As Edward Ingram writes in Great Powers and Little Wars:

Short, sharp, punitive raids were the most effective way to stabilize Afghanistan, as the Army of Retribution showed. There was no need of friendship; stable disorder was enough. Afghan rulers would learn that the British might not be able to set anyone up but certainly could knock anyone down. As Palmerston put it, they could beat up a few natives once in a while to remind them that they had not lost the knack.

The U.S. need not suffer a similar calamity before it learns the same thing: a centralized democratic Afghanistan is a fantasy. A stable feudal system is adequate, both for the U.S. and the Afghan people.