How does political uncertainty affect Afghanistan security?

January 20, 2014 at 7:00 PM EDT
An American soldier died in a Taliban attack at a military base, which came on the heels of a suicide bombing at a Kabul restaurant that killed 21 civilians. Gwen Ifill talks to Pamela Constable of The Washington Post and Omar Samad, a former Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman, about instability in Afghanistan.
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GWEN IFILL: The Taliban carried out a brazen attack today against a military base in Southern Afghanistan. Using a truck bomb, gunmen stormed the complex and killed an American soldier. That followed an assault Friday that targeted a restaurant frequented by Westerners in Kabul; 21 civilians were killed, 13 of them non-Afghans, in the single deadliest attack against foreign citizens since the war started.

Claiming responsibility, the Taliban said the attack was in retaliation for an airstrike last week against insurgents in the eastern Parwan province. There is little agreement on the genesis of that attack. There were a number of civilian causalities, but there are conflicting reports on how many were killed.

For more on the instability in Afghanistan, we turn to Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable. She recently returned from the country. And Omar Samad, a former Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman who also served as the country’s ambassador to France and to Canada.

Welcome to you both.

What does this latest attack, Pam, tell us about how unstable things are right now security-wise in Afghanistan?

PAMELA CONSTABLE, The Washington Post: I think it tells us, number one, that the Taliban are very deliberate, very precise, very well-organized.

They target places that they know will have high symbolic value, especially to the international community. At a time of great uncertainty about things like the security agreement, about future elections, everybody’s very nervous already in the country, both foreigners and Afghans. And I think an attack like this really focuses that fear and those uncertainties and crystallizes a lot of the concerns and, of course, makes them much more personal and much more — much more emotional.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Samad, do you see it the same way?

OMAR SAMAD, former Afghan Foreign Ministry Official: I do.

 I mean, I think that Afghanistan overall is going through a very difficult period. And there are some very hard questions on the table right now. So the timing of this attack, the target itself, the selection of this target, a soft target, but with high visibility, these are things that they must have taken into account when they decided to send three suicide bombers who created mayhem.

Now, on the other hand, I think the Afghan people have seen such tragedies occur at times in there. And I hope this is not sort of a watershed moment for all of us, including the international presence in Afghanistan. But Afghans are very resilient as well. And I think that they have also demonstrated over the past 24 hours that they came out on the streets, right next door to this — the place where this incident took place.

They demonstrated, they protested, and they said, we will not give up, and we will continue against terrorism.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the soft target of this particular restaurant. Both of you have spent time there. It’s a very popular place.

Pam, tell us about it.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It was really my home away from home on my trip, my many trips to Afghanistan in recent years.

The owner was a wonderful Lebanese businessman, a friend to all of us, not only charming and a genial host, but a truly generous and kind person. And he would never let us pay for dinner because he thought of us as his friends. Every time I went to Afghanistan, I would always have a farewell dinner with my friends at his restaurant. I must have been there, you know, 50 times.

And I always felt that it was my comfort zone. I always felt that it was a place of warmth and civility, and also safety, frankly.

GWEN IFILL: And the owner, of course, is one of the people killed in the attack.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: He indeed was killed, yes.

GWEN IFILL: As you — when you think about these soft targets in restaurants like this or places that are high-profile for Westerners, do you think the attack is geared to those places particularly to get that attention, in a way that an attack in Parwan province might not?

OMAR SAMAD: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, this is, in my opinion, part of a grand planning, grand design on the part of the Taliban, people who strategize for the Taliban. Remember, this year is a very important year, 2014. This is a year not only of the end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, including the U.S. mission, as we have known it. It is the year of Afghan elections in just less than three months’ time.

It is the year of transitions in so many ways for Afghans, who are uncertain about the future. So this is when the Taliban want to have the greatest impact possible. They are against the BSA, this bilateral security agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan. And President Karzai has made it harder than everyone because he has been reluctant to sign it for his own reasons.

So the Taliban want to send these messages. And I think that they may continue to send these messages. I have to say, 24 hours just after this tragedy in Kabul, we heard that three young Afghans, young men, were killed when the Talibs fired a rocket on a soccer field in Kandahar.

GWEN IFILL: But that is not the example that President Karzai cited, for instance.

OMAR SAMAD: No, but President Karzai didn’t mention this incident. He mentioned basically this one in Parwan.

Parwan is a complex situation. We have two different versions, as you mentioned earlier, one which says that the Afghans were in the lead, that they were being — that the joint operation was under duress and that they had to call in for air support.

The other says that, well, you know, it was a NATO operation, that there wasn’t much coordination and so on and so forth. So, as far as I’m concerned, we have to get to the bottom of this, but we cannot politicize every event that takes place.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the uncertainty.

You have been there. You both have been there in the last couple of weeks. How much does the political uncertainty, the refusal of signing the agreement, how much does that trickle down to the uncertainty on the ground, the lack — or the sense that people are less safe?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: I think it trickles down very much.

I know many Afghans who have already left the country or are planning or trying to leave the country, people who have good jobs, people who were in good positions, not just poor people, but people who had some very strong prospects for success in that country, who are now so genuinely worried about things falling apart, which we all hope won’t happen.

But there’s so much fear that they will. And I’m not only talking about foreigners. I’m really talking about Afghans here who know their country and know what is at stake. So it’s really — it’s almost like something in the water that I think has infected us all.

GWEN IFILL: But in order for this withdrawal to work, in order for this agreement to work, even if it were signed, doesn’t it depend a lot on Westerners, on foreigners, on these non-governmental organizations who are on the ground, who can feel secure enough to stay? Do you have a sense that they are rethinking their missions?

OMAR SAMAD: I’m sure there is always rethink taking place in Afghanistan because of one reason or another.

But this incident obviously is going to make a lot of organizations, international organizations and presence rethink security arrangements. I don’t think that the engagement in the mission is going to change much, unless we turn into another Baghdad, for example. And we look at what has happened in Iraq. And God forbid that Kabul becomes another Baghdad at this point.

So, Afghans themselves will do everything possible.

I think the Afghan security forces have again shown that they have the ability and the courage to go after these people and to do what is needed. I think that needs to be worked on. This is why the BSA is so important, because the BSA is the only…

GWEN IFILL: BSA.

OMAR SAMAD: The bilateral security agreement is the only way for the Afghan security forces to continue to develop and grow. And, at the same time, it’s the only way to fund Afghanistan for the next few years until it’s able to fund itself.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned a few moments ago that this might be a watershed moment. You both have been in and out of the country, very connected to what is happening on the ground. Does it feel like a watershed moment to you, Pamela?

PAMELA CONSTABLE: It does, but maybe that’s because I’m too close to it and it’s only just happened. And, you know, friends of mine were killed, and that always makes you feel particularly vulnerable.

I hope it’s not. But many people I have talked to over the past two or three days feel as if it may never be the same for them again.

OMAR SAMAD: I also hope it’s not.

I think that Afghans will overcome it. It is the international community that has to realize that there is much more at stake in Afghanistan, and that tragedies such as at these that — where our friends die and people we know need to be put in context. And I hope that’s what they will do.

GWEN IFILL: Omar Samad, Pamela Constable, thank you both very much.

And my condolences to you for the loss of your friends.

PAMELA CONSTABLE: Thank you very much.