What We Still Don't Know About the Kabul Attacks


Tuesday, Sept. 13's dramatic attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds in Kabul is sure to garner many headlines and will sow doubts about the ability of the Afghan national security forces -- which have responsibility for Kabul and its environs -- to manage their country's security after U.S. and allied troops carry out their planned withdrawal between now and 2014.

Those doubts are already leaping to the surface. "The Kabul attack," claims a headline in the Guardian, "shows the insurgency is as potent as ever" -- to take just one example. But we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions just yet about what the attack does or does not mean.

For one thing, we have no idea yet as to which of Afghanistan's insurgent groups executed the attack. Americans often lump Afghanistan's insurgent groups into one group and label them the "Taliban," but in truth Afghanistan is home to several insurgent actors, including the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and various local networks. We must first determine which actor perpetrated the attack before concluding whether this particular assault marks a shift in insurgent tactics and strategy.

This is particularly important because in the aftermath of the attack, U.S. and allied spin doctors might attempt to claim the attack represents the desperation of the insurgent groups after their reversals on the ground in southern and eastern Afghanistan. This might, in fact, be true. The opposite conclusion, though -- that Afghanistan's insurgent groups are gaining in strength and organization relative to the government and NATO forces -- might also be true.

Second, we do not yet know much about the capabilities, organization, or leadership of the small group that carried out the attack. Initial reports said the militants were part of the Haqqani network, but over the next few days, we will learn more about their skill with their weapons, their cohesiveness, and their coordination. These details should tell us more about whether this attack represents a step up in skill and sophistication from earlier attacks or whether this attack reflects the usual failings of insurgents in Afghanistan -- especially with respect to skill and training in the use of their weapons. A video of NATO soldiers calmly and effectively responding to the attack suggests the insurgents were mightily overmatched by their opponents.

One conclusion we can draw with relative confidence, though, is that the goal of this attack was more psychological than physical. The attack on the U.S. Embassy, it should be said, did not harm a single member of the hundreds of Americans who work there and wounded only four Afghans -- none of whose lives are threatened. But the informational effects of this attack trump any material damage that did or did not occur. A bold, coordinated assault on such a high-profile U.S. target in the center of Kabul was meant to send a message to both Afghans and Westerners alike and was meant to be amplified by the many and varied media organizations based in Kabul. Most Western media bureaus, in fact, are located just a few minutes' walk or drive from the U.S. Embassy. (The BBC's reporters, for instance, were dramatically dressed in flak jackets during the attack -- unintentionally amplifying the assailants' bid to portray the image of a city under siege.)

A second conclusion we can draw concerns the performance of the Afghan security forces. This is not the first attack on Kabul of late, and in previous incidents, the performance of the Afghan security forces has been uneven. To what degree, during this attack, was the response led by Afghans as opposed to their NATO mentors? With what degree of skill did the Afghan security forces use their own weapons, and how did they shoot, move, and communicate in the face of the insurgents? And after several years of calm in Kabul, does Tuesday's attack signal a degradation of the Afghan intelligence networks that have thwarted earlier attacks on the capital?

These are crucial questions because the ongoing transition in Afghanistan rests on the assumption that the country's security forces and intelligence services will be prepared to take responsibility for those areas that are transferred. If the Afghan security forces and intelligence services can safeguard their own capital city -- which local police officials have previously boasted is guarded by a "ring of steel" -- that is reason for encouragement. If they cannot, that is reason for despair.



Humpty Dumpty Palestine

Even if the United Nations grants Palestine statehood this September, it's far from looking -- or acting -- like a real, functioning state.

In coming weeks, we're going to hear quite a bit at the United Nations and in world capitals about Palestinian rights, unity, and statehood. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) -- the original organizational embodiment of Palestinian nationalism -- will either succeed in gaining new status as a nonmember U.N. observer state, or win a General Assembly resolution supporting Palestinian statehood.

But beneath the expressions of solidarity, celebration, and hoopla, a much darker reality looms: The Palestinian national movement has become a fractured Humpty Dumpty, with grave consequences for Israeli-Palestinian peace, regional stability, and Palestinians themselves.

The Palestinians are a people with a compelling and just cause; their nationalism and attachment to Palestine cannot be easily broken or undermined. Just consider the Jews in the diaspora, whose attachment and yearning for the Land of Israel survived centuries of rootlessness, persecution, and even genocide.

Still, geography, demography, and power politics drive history too, not just ethics, morality, and memory. And here the Palestinian story is much less compelling. Decentralized, dysfunctional, and divided, the Palestinian national movement has long lacked a coherent strategy for realizing its people's nationalist aspirations through either armed struggle or diplomacy. The Israeli occupation, the perfidy of the Arab states, and the Palestinians' own dysfunctional decision-making have left them adrift, without much hope of achieving meaningful statehood.

Over the years, centrifugal forces and history itself have broken the Palestinians into five very uneasy pieces. The current unity gambit between Fatah (the largest PLO faction, headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) and Hamas (the organizational embodiment of a Palestinian Islamist nationalism) only highlights those divisions, which are not over seats in a legislature but over fundamentally different visions of what and where Palestine is. No U.N. resolution can overcome the reality that it will be hard to put the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again.

The first piece is Gaza, where more than a million Palestinians live in political and economic limbo. Here Hamas rules uneasily but supremely. The Israeli blockade, recurring war, restrictions on movement, and absence of real opportunity for economic growth have reinforced a sense of separateness and despair. Gazans are certainly part of the Palestinian family, and they will claim to lead its nationalist vanguard (the first Intifada started there, but Gazans are cut off and seen by West Bankers as less-sophisticated country cousins ill-suited for leading the national movement). How many Palestinians from Gaza have ever risen to positions of leadership in Palestinian national politics? Even Yasir Arafat, the world's most famous Palestinian -- and Gaza resident -- wanted it known that he was born in Jerusalem, whether it was true or not. As long as Hamas is in charge, Gaza will retain its provincial character and move in its own direction -- more traditionalist, more Islamist, and more oriented toward Egypt.

Second, in the West Bank, 2.6 million Palestinians comprise the closest thing to a Palestinian statelet. But here, the PLO doesn't so much rule as preside with the indulgence of the Israelis who still control a large portion of West Bank territory, expand settlements at will, and determine who and what gets in and out. Paradoxically, an improved security situation, some economic growth, and responsible governance and institution-building by Fatah's leadership have produced remarkable stability that has worked to preserve the status quo. The West Bank is hardly in a pre-revolutionary state, and both Abbas and the Israelis have a stake in keeping it that way. Still, tensions within Fatah -- driven by a generational divide, resentment over corruption, and opposition to the Palestinian Authority's (PA's) lack of respect for the rule of law -- abound; and Hamas waits patiently to increase its own leverage. Should Abbas resign or retire, Palestinians in the West Bank would be left with no recognizable national figure to guide the PA, further exacerbating division and dissension.

Third, in East Jerusalem, almost 300,000 Palestinians (roughly 38 percent of the city's population) are an anomaly. Not Israeli citizens, but permanent residents, these Palestinians worry constantly about losing their residency, their daily lives made harder by the separation barrier. They do receive Israeli state benefits, such as health care and education; and they pay taxes for it, though their share and quality of those benefits are hardly equitable to those of Israelis (yet still much better than what West Bankers and certainly Gazans receive). Palestinians here have learned to adjust and to survive -- a great many even to prosper. They resent Israeli restrictions and discrimination; and most would want their own state if it were well-governed. But many Palestinians here are worried that they would lose their right to speak freely under a PA-controlled Palestinian state and are concerned about governmental corruption and lack of respect for human rights.

Fourth, there are 5 million Palestinians registered as refugees -- with roughly a third, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, in 58 recognized camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. When the PLO was itself in diaspora, these communities held greater sway. Even now, however, they continue to limit and even block what the PLO can do and what it can concede on the issue of right of return -- the Palestinian claim that refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes in what is now Israel -- during any negotiations with the Israelis. For all practical purposes, these communities represent a lost world; their options and future are grim. In the absence of a solution, they too will go their own way, vulnerable to radicalization and a continuing source of pressure on host governments. Nor has the Palestinian national movement -- unlike the Zionists -- been able to marshal the power of wealthy and influential expatriates in the United States, Europe, or Latin America.

Even without adding in the fifth piece -- the 1.3 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and want to remain so (though treated equitably) -- the consequences of these divisions are profound. No national movement can become a successful state without a monopoly over the forces of violence within its society, centralization of resources, and a coherent strategy. Rooted in the West Bank, the PLO lacks all these things. It cannot mobilize the people of Gaza or East Jerusalem; it cannot command their loyalties through money, show of force, or successful diplomacy, let alone marshal those in the diaspora.

And as long as Hamas has the power to trigger a military conflict with Israel through the use of high-trajectory rockets and missiles, Fatah will always be at the mercy of events and never really in control. Finally, President Abbas does not have the kind of legitimate and broad mandate he needs to negotiate a solution to the issues of refugees and Jerusalem on behalf of all Palestinians.

An Israeli government less than committed to a meaningful two-state solution -- such as the one led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- would look at the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty as just another reason to be complacent and believe that no conflict-ending solution is possible. Even a government that was serious about a settlement would ask serious questions about making concessions to a Palestinian president who doesn't control all of the people or guns of Palestine.

The fact is, it isn't the Israelis who have a demographic problem; it may actually be the Palestinians who simply cannot marshal enough control over their disparate parts to harness their people power into an effective strategy. Any Israeli government -- even one that was serious about negotiations -- would try to develop separate approaches to deal with these divisions: a military/security policy toward Gaza; a co-optation strategy toward the West Bank; and a border-security approach toward the diaspora.

If it looked like the forces of diplomacy, rather than the forces of history, might dictate the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, perhaps these various pieces of the Palestinian puzzle could be worked out and addressed. But today, with no sustainable negotiations on the horizon, that does not appear to be the case. A Palestine in pieces does not bode well for a conflict-ending solution, and no paper resolution or upgrade in status in New York this month will change that.

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