A bomb attack that seriously injured the head of Afghanistan’s security service has raised concerns about the government’s ability to safeguard its members as they go about their business in the capital Kabul.
While top officials immediately pointed the finger at Pakistan’s intelligence service, analysts said that explanation was too easy a let-out, and ignored worrying failings in the security network.
Asadullah Khaled, head of the National Directorate for Security, NDS, went to a Kabul guesthouse on December 6 to meet a man who presented himself as a Taleban emissary arriving to take the nascent peace process forward. When Khaled embraced him, the attacker set off a concealed bomb. The NDS chief survived but suffered severe injuries.
President Hamed Karzai later gave a press conference at which he claimed the attack was planned and orchestrated in Pakistan.
“Skill and complexity were involved in planting the bomb. Skilled hands were involved in it. This was not the work of the Taleban,” he said. “We want clarification from the Pakistani government…. We know that this individual travelled from Pakistan.”
Karzai made it clear that despite the serious allegations, relations with Islamabad would not be broken off.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry hit back with a statement saying it would certainly cooperate with any investigation, but that before levelling accusations of this kind, the Afghan government should have shared its evidence with Islamabad.
Karzai’s spokesman Siamak Herawi responded, “Whatever Pakistan says is not a response to our claim… There is evidence that the Pakistani ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] was involved in this attack.”
The method of attack, where a suicide bomber pretends to be a Taleban negotiator in order to get close to a top official, is virtually a copy of the September 2011 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council.)
At that time, too, suggestions of Pakistani involvement affected the two countries’ already difficult relationship.
After the attempt on Khaled’s life, Karzai commented that whenever progress is made towards a peace deal with insurgents, there is an attack on senior Afghan figures.
The incident has further dented Afghans’ confidence in their national security forces.
“This attack has run alarm bells for people, particularly high-ranking officials, investors and national-level figures,” political and defence expert Atiqullah Amarkhel said. “The question that arises for everyone is that if the NDS chief – the government’s ears and eyes – comes under attack from our enemies, what can the rest of us expect?”
Meeting on December 4, the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament accused the government of negligence when it came to spotting suicide bombers, and warned that such attacks were likely to increase if screening methods were not improved.
While alleging that such attacks were orchestrated from Pakistan, senators said there must also be people inside Afghanistan helping the bombers get access to their targets.
Another political analyst, Wahid Mozhda, agreed that the bomber must have received assistance from the inside.
“I know Khaled very well. He’s a very cautious person. If he agreed to meet [this individual], it’s very probably because a powerful government official ordered him to,” he said.
Mozhda said it was inadequate to blame external forces alone.
“If a guest comes to your house several times, and one night he takes away all your belongings, should you accuse your neighbour of assisting the thief? When this man came from Pakistan on several occasions and met Afghan officials, did the government inform Pakistan about it?” he asked.
The attack raises broader questions about the capacity and cohesion of all three security-sector institutions – the army, the police and the NDS intelligence service – especially since they will assume complete responsibility for defending the country once international forces leave in 2014.
“People have a right to be worried,” Amarkhel said. “The three security agencies face problems like training, a dearth of modern military equipment, lack of sound leadership, and discrimination on linguistic and regional grounds. Overall, one might say these three forces are not national, so people cannot trust them.”
Even Interior Minister Mojtaba Patang – who is responsible for the Afghan National Police – has warned that the force is “political and factional” rather than truly national. In remarks before a committee of parliament’s upper house, he said the police were currently unable to fulfill their responsibilities, but said he was developing plans to address the problems.
A serving police officer accused some of Patang’s predecessors of failing to build a united force. He recalled how he took 20 of his relatives – all police officers – when he was transferred to the eastern Nuristan province.
“I slept in a container at night. The policemen who were my relatives were my security. I couldn’t sleep at my headquarters, because none of the police were to be trusted. They were mixed up in various groups including smuggling mafia,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Herawi said attacks like the one targeting Khaled were not a direct reflection of the security forces’ capacity.
“Terrorist attacks take place in many countries. When someone wants to commit suicide, he can hit his target anywhere in the world,” he said. “The foreign troop presence is the main factor for poor security. When they leave this country, security will be ensured. It’s already better in those areas where responsibility has been handed over to Afghan forces.”
That might not console Kabul property dealer Momen Khan, who sees a direct correlation between security and the housing market.
“Prices go down a few percentage points after every suicide attack. Land and house prices have fallen 30 per cent since last year,” he said. “I have a long list of houses and land for sale, but there are no buyers. People are either saving their money or transferring it abroad, because the security situation is deteriorating on a daily basis.”