The quiet, warm spring has been a welcome change after the winter that has kept most Afghans locked in their homes for months. The view of the green buds covering the hills across from USIP's office, and the full weight of that day's lunch of palau and fatted sheep sitting in my stomach were enough to lull one into a peaceful relaxation.
And then the volley of machine guns began to echo through the streets, followed soon after by a series of explosions. About five minutes into the largest coordinated attack on Kabul in the recent years, a rocket propelled grenade landed about 100 meters down the street from USIP's Kabul office, rattling the building and windows in their frames.
The staff moved to the bunker and took to Twitter, the Internet, and the radio to get an update on what was going on in what has become standard practice for us here when things get violent. For the next few hours, we were confined to a small space endlessly scouring the web, texts and media outlets for updates on where the fighting was taking place, who was involved -- and how long we might be there. For those who've been in these situations before, there isn't much to do in a bunker. You try to work, that is, if you were smart enough to bring your computer, or you sit and wonder what's going on around you. Information is in short supply, and you depend upon informal channels of communication, like text messages or Twitter, to learn what is going on beyond the bunker's walls.
Ultimately, a few hours into the attack, there was enough information to know that our office wasn't in the direct line of fire of either the insurgents or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). We returned to work, and made plans to get staff home and around the various road blocks and closed streets that had -- to borrow a line from an ambassador -- cured Kabul of its nightmare traffic for a little while.
Since that day, there has been much discussion about the positive actions of the ANSF, and the failures of the international intelligence and NDS (Afghan intelligence service). Lots of discussion of what this means for the Taliban, and their display of strength; and plenty of pundits weighing in on what this single attack means for the future of international involvement.
But, what has been less discussed is the fact that by coincidence or design, the military representatives of another anti-government element, Hezb-i-Islami and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were in Kabul meeting with the Afghan High Peace Council (HPC) to discuss the negotiated cessation of hostilities. The day before, the Taliban (many believe it was the Haqqani network) conducted a brazen, multi-sited attack, Hekmatyar's son-in-law, Ghairat Baheer, led a delegation to meet with President Karzai and his representatives in the High Peace Council. The meeting coincided with the announcement of Salahuddin Rabbani as the new head of the HPC. Salahuddin is the son of the the late Head of the High Peace Council and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated in fall 2011. The Hezb-i-Islami delegation is trying to reinvigorate talks built around its 15-point plan for stabilizing Afghanistan that they first submitted nearly two years ago. The main demand to remove all international troops within six months has been a consistent non-starter for Afghans and international forces.
It is probably no coincidence that the Taliban staged a highly visible display of their capacity to strike in a coordinated fashion and reaffirm to the government of Afghanistan and its international partners that it is the most serious and capable insurgency in the country. Be it through the Haqqani network, or its thousands of other fighters, the Taliban has begun its fighting season with a spectacular assault that certainly caught the attention of the world for a few hours. But, perhaps the negotiations with the Hezb-i-Islami fighting faction will place some additional pressure on them to return to the political negotiations.
What is really needed in Afghanistan is more spectacular displays of diplomacy and peacebuilding. Massive displays of violence, such as sending young men knowingly to their deaths for what ultimately amounts to a publicity stunt, are not new tactics for the Taliban. They could, theoretically, continue to do these types of attacks in perpetuity. But, ultimately, if they are unable to form a viable political wing that can represent the interests of their military leadership and the constituency of Afghans that they claim support them, many will continue to see them as nothing more than thugs and terrorists.
Despite the Taliban's assertions that they want NATO troops to leave the country immediately, their attacks on soft and civilian targets would seem to provide greater justification for international military engagement.