Foreign Policy Op–Ed: Negotiations after the Intercontinental

June 29, 2011

To say that the peace process in Afghanistan was hardly running smoothly before Tuesday’s audacious attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel would be an understatement. As one State Department official said earlier this month at a private meeting with Afghan leaders, “there is no peace process yet.”

Tuesday evening’s attack just raised the stakes even further for the nascent negotiations process. And if talks looked tenuous before, they are downright fragile now.

The Intercontinental is a Kabul stand-by that has borne witness to the Afghan capital’s shifting fortunes over the past several decades. In the 1960s it was a stylish hangout with hilltop views and a lovely look at the nearby mountains. By 2001 all the hotel’s windows had been blown out, and the hulking husk of a frame stood as a testament to a city that had seen too much. In recent years the Intercontinental has won back some of its former glory. Though it plays second-string to the glamorous, four-star Serena Hotel, with its marble floors and hushed garden, the former has come to be seen as a safer, sturdier option for meetings, with better security because of its hilltop vantage point and less flashy scene. A mix of weddings, handicrafts fairs, dignitaries’ meetings and women’s conferences regularly take place there. And I, personally, have always been a fan of the gift shop, which offers sodas and cheerful service.

It is, in other words, a place where normal life goes on. And by hitting it with a spectacular attack on an unspectacular evening, the Taliban have made their point: They can strike anywhere they please, when they please, in a big way. The attack demonstrated that even the capital isn’t safe. The security transition to Afghan forces is a fine idea in theory, but NATO back-up was still necessary in reality against a foe that proved to be resourceful, fearless and welcoming of as many casualties as achievable.

On Tuesday morning I spoke with an American official in Kabul who said he believed in a transition plan, but feared that the United States was pulling troops out too quickly with too vague a roadmap for what would come next in the country. He reminded me that former U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal often said that at some point the fight would reach a tipping point in the minds of Afghans, and they would decide one way or the other which way events would go — and then things would go quickly. The official’s fear was that things had the potential to unravel swiftly if the public did not pick one side or the other before a disintegrating security environment decided for them.

And then the Intercontinental attack happened. One more high-profile attack on a once lower-profile target less than a week after President Obama argued for a political settlement in Afghanistan. The questions lurk and grow louder: Exactly who will the United States negotiate with when it comes to reconciliation, and do they speak for all insurgents? Is there a roadmap that leads to a peaceful end to America’s longest-ever war? Does the Taliban see a need to talk when they can take their message on the road and to the people any time they choose? And will the next Bonn conference see a political settlement start to take shape or disintegrate into a could-have-been?

From the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) side, officials in Kabul say that Afghan security forces performed admirably in the mayhem and bloodshed of the Intercontinental attack. Afghan forces took control of the hotel and pushed the attackers up floor by floor to the roof so that they could not escape, where they were then cut down by NATO helicopters. And they say the Afghan forces only needed NATO back-up because their own helicopters don’t have night vision, and the building’s power had been cut off so as to blind the attackers.

The fact remains, however, that the Taliban struck in a fortified hotel in a fortified capital city in a way that made their message unmistakable. The United States is now in the awkward position once again of pushing for talks with men who fight their way through hotel checkpoints with suicide bombs, so that they can fire unencumbered on unarmed civilians in the Afghan capital. The tide of war may be receding, as President Obama said last week, but it is hardly clear whether it will lead to the negotiation table, a lasting peace, or more chaos. Only the coming months will tell.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.