Kabul, the Next Saigon?

The ominous signs of a hotel-massacre.

kbOne night last week in Kabul, Afghanistan, at dinner time, the Taliban sent three jihadis armed with rifles into the Park Palace Hotel.  This guesthouse is frequented by foreigners and was targeted for that reason.  While the dinner guests ate, the terrorists fired into them, killing ten people, including an American, a Briton and an Italian, and wounding many more.  The killing spree lasted many hours until police ended the standoff.

Six months ago, the US and NATO lost patience with fighting and gave up primary combat operations in Afghanistan.  Their long part in that war (except for a limited training role) ended in December with much pomp and ceremony, but the conflict itself shows little sign of being won, and this hotel-massacre appears to be only one example of a recent trend of direct attacks on foreign and local civilians.

Notably, on April 18th, a suicide bomber detonated himself in a Jalalabad market and killed 35 people.  In March of last year, Taliban gunmen blasted their way into the luxury Serena Hotel and killed nine dinner-goers, including four foreigners and two children.  This was preceded by a January 2014 attack on a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, in which Taliban terrorists murdered 21 people, mostly foreigners.

In war, attacks on civilians are sometimes a sign of battlefield weakness—the terrorists shift to soft targets because of their inability to win conventional battles against an enemy force.  Think back to Iraq during the Surge: al Qaeda repeatedly bombed civilian targets because it was losing the street fighting to the Americans.

But sometimes attacks on civilians are a way to emotionally satisfy the terrorist’s blood lust, despite his success on the conventional battlefield, as in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam of 1968.  That seems to be the present case in Afghanistan.  Since launching the annual “spring offensive,” the Afghan Taliban has been attacking Afghan National Army (ANA) and police forces all across the country’s theater of combat, and the ANA has been taking heavy casualties without its NATO allies to help them.

President Obama announced in late March that nearly all of the 17,000 NATO (9,800 American) remaining training troops would be gradually withdrawn over the next year.  The 1,000 troops left would be relegated to guarding the embassy and a Kabul base camp.  Yesterday Kabul announced another agreement that would allow a small number of US troops to remain for special “counter-terrorism” missions.

But the ANA is not ready.  The goal of a 352,000-man ANA and police force is still a distant dream, and the Afghan government is broke, entirely dependent upon Western aid to pay for the most basic services.  Meanwhile, the Taliban’s spring offensive grinds forward, overrunning some ANA checkpoints in Kunduz.

Now ISIS is making inroads into Afghanistan, and is being blamed by the Afghan government for several new atrocities against civilians.  Whether the bombings are really ISIS, or the resurgent Taliban, are unclear; what is certain is that ISIS possesses the will and the ability to metastatize itself into the weak nation’s towns and villages.  It is therefore likely that soon the ANA will have two, not one, insurgencies to fight, with little help from its former allies in NATO.

The future without NATO looks bleak.  We need look only to Iraq.  Last summer, a tiny force of ISIS terrorists crucified, burned and beheaded its way across the northern provinces, stopped only at the gates of Baghdad by the extreme heat.  There were no US aircraft to slow them; there were no Marines to take them on.  President Obama had, in 2011, turned tail and withdrawn all American forces from the country, leaving it hopelessly vulnerable to the terror-onslaught.  When our forces are withdrawn from Kabul, it isn’t just Iraq, but Saigon in 1975 that really does come to mind.

Christopher S. Carson, a lawyer, holds a master’s in National Security Studies.

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