"It's Like Fighting Sand"


"It’s like fighting sand. No force in the world can get the better of the Afghans," said Oleg Kubanov, a Russian veteran of the failed Soviet occupation of Afghanistan at a commemoration of the communist regime’s withdrawal from the country in Moscow last Sunday.

It isn’t only foreign armies who are having difficulty confronting violence in the region.

For the second time in three months a devastating suicide commando-style attack on a major foreign city has been linked to Pakistan. Last Wednesday morning a handful of gunmen with explosives strapped to their chests stormed two government ministries and a prison complex in central Kabul, killing 26 and leaving many others injured. Another was killed trying to enter the Ministry of Education. One of the attackers blew himself up inside the prison complex, leaving a gruesome trail of bloodied glass, concrete and body parts.

Afghanistan’s intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh immediately blamed Pakistan for the attacks. Associated Press quoted Saleh as stating that the attackers sent text messages to their "leader" in Pakistan just prior to the attack. The claim bears a striking resemblance to that made by Indian officials last December, when a dossier sent to Pakistani authorities mentioned records of phone conversations between the Mumbai attackers and people in Pakistan.

But the alleged links back to Pakistan are not the only similarity. The fidayeen attacks on key areas of the Afghan Government, in which a few well-armed gunmen seek to maximise casualties and continue to fight until killed, mirrored the attacks on Mumbai in November last year as well as an earlier attack on the Indian parliament quarter in New Delhi in December 2001.

One of the common aims of these assaults was to paralyse the cities thereby spreading fear and magnifying the sense that the militants are capable of striking at the heart of their enemies’ power-base.

Even though (according to a US Army spokesperson) the attacks were "poorly executed", this most recent attack left central Kabul paralysed for over two hours. The last, equally daring, attack on Kabul was a suicide attack on India’s embassy in July 2008 which killed 58 people, including the Indian defence attache. US intelligence officials have accused Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence of assisting that murderous assault.

The most recent attack on Kabul appears to have been timed to coincide with a visit by Richard Holbrooke, US President Barack Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke arrived for his first visit to Afghanistan as special envoy last Thursday, the day after the attacks. While stamping out the Taliban insurgency was the primary purpose of his visit, few could have expected this type of introduction.

The ostensible reason for the attacks, the Taliban declared in a prepared statement widely distributed to the media, was to protest the treatment of its captured fighters. "We wanted to teach them a lesson," said spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahed. But the attacks were more likely calculated to prove the powerlessness of the Afghan Government at a time when its key supporter, the United States, is very publicly seeking to ramp up its presence in the country. It was no coincidence that the Taliban chose to attack key government ministries a mere block away from President Hamid Karzai’s official residence.

The attacks were also a reminder to all — not least ordinary Afghans who remain sceptical about foreign troops and their government’s capacity to govern them — that the Taliban is still a force to be reckoned with. A recent poll of ordinary Afghans by ABC News America found that support for the Karzai Administration and particularly the foreign military presence has diminished  considerably in recent times. Support for President Karzai has reduced to 63 per cent from 85 per cent in 2005, while only 42 per cent view US efforts in Afghanistan favourably, down from 57 per cent last year.

Such polls bode ill for Obama, who has just committed an extra 17,000 US troops to the war. "This increase is necessary to stabilise a deteriorating situation
in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention,
direction and resources it urgently requires,"
the President said in an apparent backhander to George W Bush, whom Obama has accused of
ignoring urgent security needs in Afghanistan in favour of the war in

Last Thursday Afghan and US officials announced an agreement whereby Afghan forces would take on more responsibility for the planning and conduct of specific operations with a view to reducing civilian casualties. This announcement came on the same day that Australian forces were implicated in the killing of up to five children during a fire fight with Taliban militants last week.

The agreement between Afghanistan and the US is one part of a decision to include the troubled central Asian country in at least part of a series of reviews the US is currently undertaking of its presence in the region. It is a small coup for President Karzai, who is considered  to have a poor relationship with the Obama Administration.

Pakistani officials will also be taking part in the US reviews. Earlier last week, before travelling to Afghanistan, Holbrooke spent three days speaking to Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership.

Perhaps to coincide with his visit and show its resolve to tackle extremism, Pakistan officially accepted that the Mumbai attacks were at least partially planned in the country. Pakistan has arrested six men it claims planned the attacks, including one described as the ringleader.

It was perhaps no coincidence, however, that Holbrooke chose to visit Pakistan before Afghanistan or India, where he is currently spending the next few days. Pakistan’s ability to curtail Islamic militancy, or lack thereof, featured prominently in his recent discussions with Indian officials, as it did during his visit to Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan is desperate for continued military and economic aid from the United States.

In truth, Washington can ill-afford to neglect its relationship with Pakistan. Despite talk of a tripling in non-military aid to Pakistan being tied to its successfully curtailing Islamic militancy — $US1.5 billion a year for 10 years in socio-economic assistance — the US will have to continue to fund the Pakistan army.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.