By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist
Photo by: www.pbs.org
With the recent terrorist attacks in Kabul hope for political reconciliation has diminished greatly. The Taliban and the Islamic State’s increasing focus on highly visible targets in densely populated areas signals a change in strategy from rural campaigns to urban ones. This hinders the U.S., NATO, and Afghan security forces’ efforts to end the war and discredits the Afghan government’s ability to protect its citizens. The U.S. and NATO must increase their kinetic and advise-and-assist efforts to undercut the Taliban and the Islamic State, thus forcing the Taliban into negotiations.
A series of deadly terror attacks in Kabul perpetuated by the Taliban and Islamic State have claimed at least 200 lives since the start of 2018. On January 20, 2018, Taliban militia attacked Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel;[i] six gunmen, reportedly of the Haqqani network,[ii] stormed the hotel killing at least 22 people, injuring many others in the process.[iii] Afghan Special Forces eliminated the gunmen after a 13-hour standoff.[iv] The Taliban claimed a second attack that took place on January 27, in which an explosives-packed ambulance blew up in Kabul, killing 95 and wounding 191 people.[v] Additionally, the Afghan government issued security alerts in January, warning Kabul citizens that the Islamic State also intended to conduct attacks in crowded areas in the city.[vi]
These latest attacks come as U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces have increased military operations against the Taliban. The U.S. granted new authority to Afghan forces in late 2017 to pursue kinetic operations, in addition to its advise-and-assist role with Afghan forces.[vii] US forces have thus increased the operational tempo of offensive air strikes against Taliban and Islamic State militants.[viii] The Afghan Air Force (AAF), with US assistance, launched new offensives against Taliban-linked drug production facilities in Afghanistan to weaken the group’s revenue streams and logistical support.[ix] The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), part of the NATO-led ‘Resolute Support’ mission, also intensified military operations in recent months in an effort to break the ongoing stalemate of Afghanistan’s 16-year-old conflict, and bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.[x]
Along with these intensified military operations, there have been renewed efforts to revive peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.[xi] On January 17 US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Nikki Haley stated that Afghanistan was close to holding peace talks with the Taliban;[xii] however, the hotel assault clearly demonstrates the Taliban’s ability and willingness to strike high-visibility targets, exposing the inefficiency of coalition efforts to end the war. The Taliban and Haqqani network are stringing together an increasingly deadly series of attacks as part of a coherent operational strategy of targeting civilian centers to discredit the central government.[xiii]
Furthermore, as security in Kabul worsens, the Taliban and Islamic State have moved into urban areas in order to seize new territory, hoping to increase their own influence at the expense of the other. Because the attacks undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government’s securitization strategies, the terrorists’ urban campaigns hinder the possibility of future peace negotiations.
The U.S. and Afghan governments should exploit this division by increasing pressure on the Taliban to compel them to the negotiating table first before then uniting against Islamic State. US and NATO-led forces should increase their advise-and-assist role to help Afghan security forces in implementing a new security plan. Indeed, in early February, the Afghan government unveiled a new strategy for Kabul in order to combat insurgent attacks. The new plan includes three elements: (1) closing off side roads connecting suburbs of Kabul to the city center, (2) increasing reconnaissance and intelligence activities, and (3) establishing 90 new check points.[xiv] Further assistance from the U.S. and NATO in intelligence and reconnaissance operations could thwart the Islamic State and Taliban’s urban networks.[xv]
[i] Al Arabiya English, “At least 18 dead in Kabul hotel attack, including 14 foreigners: official,” Al Arabiya English, January 20, 2018, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/world/2018/01/20/Suicide-attack-under-way-at-Kabul-hotel-official.html.
[ii] Akram Walizada and Mirwais Harooni, “Heavy casualties after overnight battle at Kabul hotel,” Reuters, January 20, 2018,
[iii] National Public Radio, “US citizens killed in weekend attack on Kabul hotel, State Department says,” NPR, January 23, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/01/23/579937868/u-s-citizens-killed-in-weekend-attack-on-kabul-hotel-state-department-says; Josh Lederman, “Multiple Americans killed in Taliban attack at Afghanistan Hotel, State Department says,” Time, January 23, 2018,
[iv] Department of State, “Department Press Briefing – January 23, 2018,” January 23, 2018,
https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2018/01/277613.htm; Akram Walizada and Mirwais Harooni, “Heavy casualties after overnight battle at Kabul hotel.”
[v] Ehsan Popalzai and Laura Smith-Spark, “Taliban attacker driving ambulance packed with explosives kills 95 in Kabul,” CNN, January 28, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/27/asia/afghanistan-kabul-blast-intl/index.html.
[vi] The Hindu Business Line, “Ambulance bomb kills 63, wounds 151 in Kabul,” The Hindu Business Line, January 27, 2018, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/at-least-40-dead-140-wounded-in-kabul-blast/article22535555.ece.
[vii] US Air Force, “US Air Forces Central Command realigns aircraft and airmen to Kandahar Airfield,” January 24, 2018,
[viii] NATO ‘Resolute Support Afghanistan,’ “Increased aircraft and airmen arrive in Afghanistan, join air campaign against Taliban,” January 24, 2018,
http://www.rs.nato.int/news-center/press-releases/2018-press-releases/increased-aircraft-and-airmen-arrive.aspx; United States Mission to the United Nations, “Remarks at a United Nations Security Council Ministerial Debate on Afghanistan,” January 19, 2018,
https://usun.state.gov/remarks/8257; James Mackenzie, “A-10 ground attack aircraft bolster US air power in Afghanistan,” Reuters, January 23, 2018,
[ix] US Central Command, Lisa Ferdinando, “US, Afghan forces target Taliban drug labs, hit where it hurts,” Department of Defense News, Defense Media Activity, November 20, 2017,
[x] US Air Force, “US Air Forces Central Command realigns;” David Martin, “Attack on Kabul Hotel highlights danger in Afghanistan after 16 year of war”, CBS News, January 23, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/kabul-hotel-attack-highlights-danger-in-afghanistan-after-16-years-of-war/; Hamid Shalizi and Akram Walizada, “Kabul hotel attack: Intercontinental under attack by gunmen ‘taking hostages and battling security forces,’” The Independent, January 20, 2018, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/kabul-hotel-attack-intercontinental-latest-gunmen-isis-casualties-death-toll-terror-shooting-bombing-a8169951.html.
[xi] Sami Yousafzai, “Taliban leader approved Islamabad meeting on Afghan peace talks: sources”, Reuters, January 17, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-taliban/taliban-leader-approved-islamabad-meeting-on-afghan-peace-talks-sources-idUSKBN1F623B.
[xiii] National Public Radio, “US citizens killed in weekend attack on Kabul hotel.”
[xiv] Massoud Ansar, “Security check points stepped up in Kabul,” Tolo News, February 7, 2018, https://www.tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan/security-check-points-stepped-kabul.
[xv] Kathy Gannon, “Afghan forces uncover IS hideout in Kabul district,” ABC News, February 2, 2018, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/afghan-forces-uncover-hideout-house-kabul-district-52788853.