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How the Kabul Embassy Attack Could Affect the Region

Afghan authorities wasted little time in assigning blame. With blood and debris still littering the streets of Kabul after a suicide bomb at the Indian embassy killed 41 and injured 150 on Monday, an Afghan defense spokesman promptly pointed an accusatory figure at Pakistan. "The sophistication of this attack, and the kind of material that was used and the specific targeting, everything has the hallmark of a particular intelligence agency that has conducted similar attacks inside Afghanistan in the past. We have sufficient evidence to say that," the spokesman told reporters Tuesday morning, refusing to mention Pakistan by name but acknowledging the reference as "pretty obvious."

The accusation was rooted in a complex web of regional conflicts and stresses between the three countries. In addition to the longstanding tensions between India and Pakistan, Kabul accuses Pakistani leaders of doing too little to curb militant Islamist groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan's remote tribal regions. In India, a series of bombings that killed 63 people in Jaipur came just before Indian officials' first meeting with the new government of Pakistan—attacks that some analysts say were intended to heighten tensions and disrupt the relationship. More recently, A RAND Corporation report released in the beginning of June also pointed to "some indications" that members of the Pakistani military and intelligence forces have been assisting Taliban insurgents planning attacks in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has denied involvement in the Kabul bombing, but there is little doubt that Afghanistan's security situation looks increasingly bleak. According to the London-based Senlis Council think tank, Taliban-affiliated groups now control more than half of Afghanistan, including areas located only 45 minutes from the capital. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul spoke with Paul Burton, the Director of Policy at the Senlis Council, about how the embassy attack could affect this volatile area. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are claims that this attack could have involved the Pakistani government well-founded?
Paul Burton: There has been tangential evidence and documents floating around that suggest a link between some elements of the Pakistan intelligence service [ISI] and the Haqqani [militant groups in Pakistan's North Waziristan territory]. It seems there are still elements within the Pakistani military and the ISI that have very long memories and just don't like the prospect of losing Afghanistan to India. Whether or not these guys have directed militants to launch attacks against Kabul is speculation, but it's grounded in the reality of the last 20 years or so. There is a concern that India could view this as a proxy attack on its territory. It's not uncommon for those Indian workers to be targeted as well—quite a few have lost their lives—so how India perceives this attack is going to be very important.

Why target the Indian embassy?
Pakistan has had this concept of Afghanistan as its client state, and it's always endeavored to keep it in its back pocket. That's why it was so keen to get the Taliban in power, because the movement was basically born in the madrassas of Pakistan. Now, Indians have moved into the country very quickly. They've invested lots of money—they're building the new parliament and there are about 3,000 Indian workers in the southwest, building a road that would link Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf without going through Pakistan. At the moment, Afghanistan is entirely dependent upon Pakistan for sea access, so they're obviously very concerned about that development.

Is there a link between the bombing of the Indian embassy and other attacks you've seen, or does this strike you as very targeted?
We're seeing more high-profile attacks in the capital against high-value targets. This year, we saw the Serena Hotel bombing, the botched attempt to assassinate President [Hamid] Karzai and now this Indian attack. A lot of the attacks in the south are relatively primitive devices; they're hit-and-miss, they're not large-scale, sophisticated bombings. Also, suicide bombings are an entirely new concept in Afghanistan. Two years ago, we didn't see any. Now suddenly they're happening all the time. We can see imported tactics from Iraq now being applied in Afghanistan.

Which group is most likely responsible for that?
There are a couple of groups more likely to use these kinds of tactics than the Taliban of [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar's time, specifically the group believed to be in North Waziristan, led by someone named Haqqami, who is becoming increasingly prominent now and is starting to speak out against Mullah Omar, saying he's too soft and not going after the right targets. With that kind of split within the militant Islamists, I think it's possible to trace why there are more high-profile attacks now.

So the Taliban is fragmenting?
It's a false label to refer to "The Taliban." There are at least three distinct elements here. There are the guys in Quetta, Pakistan, the leadership council led by Mullah Omar. They still direct some of the operations, but it's not believed that they have anywhere near complete control over all the insurgents. The second [elements] don't join for any ideological persuasion, but because they need cash and the Taliban can pay more than other income sources. They're primarily in the south, but are moving up the east as well. Third are the hard-core militant Islamists, led by Haqqani. These are the guys that the Pakistani Army is now really trying to hammer away at in the northwest frontier province of Pakistan. When they put out their rhetoric, they're very clearly [embracing] in classic Al Qaeda fashion the ideas of driving out the infidels and Western interests from Afghanistan.

What do you read into Taliban denials of responsibility?
Not much. Some groups are keen to claim bombings, some aren't. And if the generic "Taliban" denied it, what does that mean? The people issuing denials could well be spokesmen for the Mullah Omar group. It's such an amorphous group, who knows? It's fragmenting on a daily basis.

How do you assess that an area is under Taliban control?
It's not so much Taliban control, it's having the presence and the ability to disrupt security. That could be launching a kidnapping, or a crude bomb, or a high-profile attack. It's all a question of perception, which is why [our study is based on] whether they've actually heard of or seen or believe to have seen Talibs within their locale. The map is a point-in-time snapshot.  But it's important, because it demonstrates how the Taliban has a rule of fear even now. People are very scared of the fact that they run things so close to Kabul now.

Where are they coming from?
They're essentially coming from the south, using the main artery to come up from Kandahar and Helmand provinces. They're setting up a lot of checkpoints as well, so our researchers have to be very careful. This is a road that we've used freely in the past and now can't use, which is a strong indication of how successfully the Taliban are moving around the country.

What about the interplay between local warlords and the Taliban?
In the mid-1990s, the Taliban brought stability to a chaotic situation, and they were welcomed by these tribal leaders as white knights. Now, it's a different situation. The tribal leaders are increasingly keen to reassert their authority over their regions, so if they know the Taliban are in town, it disrupts that dynamic and they're less likely to be as accommodating. But in Afghanistan, allegiances shift day to day, and it can come down to who can offer them the most money or security. Tribal leaders might sign a deal with Talibs, saying, "Leave our village alone or tie our economic community into your black market, and we'll make sure you're OK." We hear stories in the south of large families having to put one son in the Taliban and another in the Afghan National Army, because they're hedging their bets.

What conclusions can you make about the resurgence of the Taliban based on all of this?
We're clearly seeing them still as a potent force within the country. It's a really troubling development that IEDs are being increasingly used. Some military commanders say that's because they're on the run and they can't maintain a physical base anymore, but with an insurgency that's free-footed and becoming more adept at these asymmetric tactics, it's becoming more and more difficult for the military to defeat them in the classic sense. Unfortunately, we're seeing Afghanistan's security situation deteriorate, and it's difficult to see how it's going to turn around, at least in the short term.

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