A brazen, bloody attack by the Taliban on Kabul’s historic Hotel Intercontinental, on the eve of a conference on security transition, is more than just tragic irony. It marks an escalation of conflict that exposes the flaws of Afghanistan’s unprepared security forces and aggravates the security environment for civilian foreign assistance.
A press event about the security handover had been scheduled the following day at the hotel, which also housed governors from several provinces across the country participating in the two-day conference. It is not clear yet how many of the governors were harmed in the attack, but the symbolism is not lost in the ensuing fire and explosions.
Well into the six-hour attack, Afghan National Security Forces at the scene appeared distraught and disorganized. Journalist Erin Cunningham, who was reporting from the ground, tweeted:
ANSF EXTREMELY nervous outside hotel. Running at cars, pointing guns at drivers, pulling people from vehicles.
International troops in several SUVs and helicopters eventually arrived to help the Afghans, killing three of the attackers who had been firing machine guns, lobbing grenades and launching RPGs on the city from the hotel roof.
Kabul is among the first seven areas in the country set to come under the control of Afghan forces beginning in July. But this attack shows that ANSF was unable to independently secure the site and wasn’t equipped with or capable of running aerial surveillance or assault on the attackers in one of the most secure areas of the capital.
If the experience of the international forces in Afghanistan is any clue, fighting an insurgency is extremely difficult, even for well-established and equipped militaries. Therefore, it is perhaps foolhardy to expect an army with a sum total of 10 years of experience to stand against an amorphous yet organized and well-funded insurgency with a safe haven across Afghanistan’s southern border.
On the other hand, the attack on the Intercontinental is not the first such assault on hotels in the capital. Previously, the Serena Hotel and the Safi Landmark Hotel – as well as the UN guesthouse – have been targeted by the insurgents in similarly bloody fashion.
This attack is an assault on the already-shrinking space considered safe by international civilian personnel – dignitaries, diplomats, consultants, aid workers, journalists, others. At a time when violence on the roads and in the outlying provinces across the country is on the rise, many international personnel opt to stay and work from hotels, guesthouses and residences in urban areas, especially the capital.
Therefore, the effect of this attack and the subsequent death toll is every bit psychological as it is corporeal.
To say nothing of the impact of the escalating violence on the local population, international personnel and qualified Afghans abroad will no doubt factor events like this into their employment decisions. The net effect of the violence is the hindering of aid and other civilian assistance in the country. Afghanistan will feel the opportunity cost of stunted development long after the smoke has cleared and the internationals have gone home.