In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the plight of the Afghan woman was a minor, but important part of the narrative that shaped the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Girls, for the first time in years, headed to schools, and women -- at least in Kabul -- were able to move without the blue shuttlecock burqas that symbolized their bondage under the Taliban.
So it is with great irony that this week, one of the worst ever for coalition forces in Afghanistan, foreigners were killed in Kabul by a suicide bomber who was neither male nor linked to the Taliban. The perpetrator was a young woman affiliated with the Hezb-i-Islami (HIG) militant group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a bitter foe of the Taliban and former U.S. proxy who on 9/11 was self-exiled in Iran.
The ever pragmatic Hekmatyar is a weather vane, indicating the trajectory of the conflict in Afghanistan and the ever shifting domestic and regional power game. His role in the Sept. 18 bombing shows that the insurgents have the upper hand, their fight against the United States and Kabul government will continue, and Afghanistan is headed toward a messy, full-scale civil war.
Hekmatyar is the ultimate hedger. During the 1990s, he was at one point taking cash from both Iran and Pakistan. Today, his group is allied with his former Taliban enemies and is back in cahoots with the Pakistanis -- it continues to dominate Pakistan's Shamshatoo refugee camp and operates freely in Peshawar -- after having been dumped by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Yet, out of all the insurgent groups, HIG has been most inclined to negotiate with Kabul. It in fact has a prominent network of fellow travelers in Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cabinet, a network consisting of people who have left Hekmatyar's branch of Hezb-i-Islami but still speak of him with reverence. A leading HIG negotiator now says that the peace talks are dead. And in a small-scale but ominous reminder of the chaotic intra-mujahideen war of the 1990s, recently HIG fighters have led so-called local uprisings against the Taliban. Warlordism still rules.
What's in store for Afghanistan is more war. The most perilous scenario is a renewed, full-fledged civil war -- total conflict with every faction for itself. Many, including people in Kabul, Washington, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi, will be responsible for the carnage that could follow. But it is indisputable now that the Obama administration's once-vaunted "AfPak" strategy is a massive failure.
Osama bin Laden is, of course, dead. His killing and the rescue of General Motors were crudely displayed together at the Democratic National Convention as President Barack Obama's greatest achievements. A vigilant drone campaign has depleted al Qaeda's core. Many commanders have fled for greener pastures in the Arab heartland, where the next great jihad could begin.
But the jihad in South Asia continues despite the Obama campaign's celebratory chants. Al Qaeda affiliates and partner groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- including the Haqqani network and a variety of Pakistani Taliban groups -- remain resilient. The region is on fire, and growing instability creates a potential habitat for groups that will challenge regional security and, perhaps down the road, past the current U.S. election cycle, the American homeland.
Beyond al Qaeda, the U.S. president has achieved little of strategic importance in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is incorrect, if not disingenuous, when he says that the Taliban's momentum has been "blunted." The Taliban's spear is sharp as ever. Last week, on Sept. 14, it cut through Camp Bastion, one of the most secure foreign bases in Afghanistan. There, in a complex attack that cost $10,000 or $20,000 at most, it destroyed six jets valued at up to $180 million. The ratio of cost to achievement of the $100 billion-a-year war in Afghanistan is indefensible, though it must be said that the president, with his emphasis on "nation-building here at home," recognizes this uncomfortable fact.