Afghan Security Under Attack As Troops Leave

The presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan met in Istanbul Tuesday to discuss how to stabilize Afghanistan as foreign troops leave. A suicide attack in Kabul Saturday left 13 NATO forces dead, part of a string of recent violence. Host Renee Montagne speaks with Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation about the state of security.

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Last weekend brought the deadliest attack yet on NATO forces in Kabul, one of a series of attacks bold enough to make headlines, beginning with the 20-hour siege of the American embassy. Those attacks over several weeks raised new concerns about security in Afghanistan's capital. One militant group in particular, the Haqqani Network, is thought to have orchestrated the most spectacular attacks. Seth Jones is the author of "In the Graveyard of Empires." Good morning.

SETH JONES: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, these very high-profile attacks in Kabul can give the impression that Taliban anti-government forces have, you know, barbarians at the gate, you know, reached the gates of the capital.

JONES: Well, I think its primary objective is to establish a psychological impact. Kabul is the one city where we do see foreign media, so they will pick up these kinds of attacks, and it will be viewed often as - at least perceived - as an increase in the threat picture.

MONTAGNE: Well, the Haqqani Network is linked to the Taliban - not precisely the Taliban as we understand them - but it has been linked to the most complex, deadly attacks. It seems like the enemy that is the toughest to beat.

JONES: That's not accurate at all. I mean, by far the largest group, the largest number of foot soldiers remains the Taliban. But the Haqqani Network, which is actually a fairly small network, does not have a large support base in Afghanistan, but partly because they're based in North Waziristan with a range of other groups, including al-Qaida, whom they continue to have a good relationship, have been able to pull off some of the most sophisticated attacks in Kabul, complex attacks at major hotels, against Afghan government buildings, attacks that really require advanced planning, execution, more than just fighting, for example, in a field the way most Taliban fighters are in areas like southern and eastern Afghanistan. But the fact of the matter in Afghanistan is that every major insurgent group, from the Taliban to the Haqqani Network, have their command and control structure on the Pakistan side of the border, and in most case with direct support from the Pakistan government, or at least its intelligence service.

MONTAGNE: Could it be said then that Pakistan is itself fighting a covert war against Afghanistan?

JONES: I think there's no question since about 2005 or 2006, Pakistan has been fighting a covert war in Afghanistan. And just to understand why - on one border, Afghanistan has India, with whom it's fought several wars, and on its other border we have what Islamabad views as a President Karzai/Indian alliance. So if you're in Islamabad, you are strategically encircled right now, or at least that's the perception. As Islamabad is looking down the line, it sees an American withdrawal from Afghanistan. And so these proxy organizations, like the Haqqani Network, become important because they serve as a way to get Kabul back and to increase Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan over the long run.

MONTAGNE: What direction does that push the Obama administration? Does it push it into giving Pakistan more power when it comes to peace talks or does it have the Obama administration talking even tougher?

JONES: I actually think the administration has moved in both directions. It's tried to involve Pakistan in peace negotiations about the future of Afghanistan, trying to bring senior elements of the insurgency into a peace agreement. The problem, though, is that there are several senior individuals, like the former president of Afghanistan, Rabbani, who headed the, or was involved in, the senior leadership discussions about a peace settlement, he was assassinated. So there clearly are questions about how viable a peace settlement is, which then pushes the Obama administration also into a second part of this to also target elements of the insurgency in Pakistan. So at the same time it is trying to work with Pakistan on a peace settlement, as well as target insurgents in Pakistan - unilaterally in some cases.

MONTAGNE: Seth Jones is author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."

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