Panic in Kabul

Is Islamabad next? By Shuja Nawaz The coordinated attacks by the Taliban in Kabul on the eve of U.S. Amb. Richard Holbrooke’s arrival were no coincidence. Apart from ratcheting up fear among the citizens of Kabul, these attacks may well reflect a sense of desperation on the part of the Taliban. They fear that the ...

588604_090211_Kabul2.jpg
588604_090211_Kabul2.jpg

Is Islamabad next?

By Shuja Nawaz

Is Islamabad next?

By Shuja Nawaz

The coordinated attacks by the Taliban in Kabul on the eve of U.S. Amb. Richard Holbrooke’s arrival were no coincidence. Apart from ratcheting up fear among the citizens of Kabul, these attacks may well reflect a sense of desperation on the part of the Taliban. They fear that the impending arrival of additional troops in Afghanistan and simultaneous attempts to begin a dialogue with elements of the Afghan insurgency could leave them isolated. Hence the need to show their strength and ability to penetrate and attack the government in Kabul at will. Apart from showing off their military prowess, the Taliban wish to highlight President Hamid Karzai’s inability to control even his own capital. There may be a regional strategy behind this approach.

In Islamabad, intrepid local journalist Hamid Mir, who in the past has managed to get interviews with militant leaders of all ilk, reported in The News today growing signs of an impeding attack on the capital of Pakistan. There, painted signs on walls warn even other militant leaders, who might be distancing themselves from the Taliban’s puritanical dogma, not to collaborate with the “pro-American Zardari government.”

So, an attack inside the Pakistani capital cannot be ruled out, and indeed might be imminent.

The aim there might be to hasten the government’s retreat from normal rule of law in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Swat in favor of a sharia-based system, using the Taliban’s convoluted interpretation of Islamic traditions. The Taliban’s strong selling point is the absence of good governance and speedy justice in both the tribal areas along the Afghan border and inside the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. If the government resists the temptation to buy them off with sharia laws, it will have taken a first step in reasserting its supremacy. If it chooses to fold, then the Taliban pressure will only increase, and they will attempt to spread their system to other parts of Pakistan, using fear and intimidation, as appears to be the strategy in Afghanistan.

President Karzai may need to show the same resolve and demonstrate his ability to provide good governance in Kabul and the countryside, if he wishes to be reelected in the summer. Given how rapidly U.S. support for him is diminishing, Karzai’s efforts may well become an academic exercise as time runs out on his term in office. The challenge for those who wish to succeed him will be to show how they can bring a clean and responsive government to Afghanistan that relies on shared power with the provinces rather than a centralizing of authority in Kabul. In the final analysis, good governance and speedy justice are likely to be the most effective riposte to the Taliban’s terror tactics.

Shuja Nawaz is the Director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council and author most recently of FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS 2009).

Photo: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, and author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within, now out in paperback, and FATA: A Most Dangerous Place.

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