Taliban terrorize Kabul in series of attacks

Afghan forces battle Taliban militants in streets of Kabul. China stonewalls possible sanctions against Iran. Deadly violence erupts in Nigerian sectarian clashes. UN seeks additional troops for Haiti. All this and much more, in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
19 January 2010

Yesterday, the Afghan capital of Kabul was struck by a coordinated Taliban assault, constituting one of their most ambitious attacks so far. A group of militants staged several suicide bombings and targeted key government buildings near the presidential palace, killing at least seventeen people.

The audacious attacks took place as president Karzai was swearing in a new cabinet in his heavily fortified palace, while outside Afghan security forces fought off the Taliban militants. Other groups of attackers barricaded themselves in a shopping centre and a cinema, before the police stormed the buildings and took them out. The government claims to have killed seven Taliban fighters. The Taliban stated on their website that twenty of its combatants had taken part in the attack.

The openSecurity verdict: President Karzai had recently outlined a programme of reconciliation with the Taliban, in an attempt to get them to the negotiation table and decrease the violence in the country. The US and its allies now view reconciliation as a vital step for the stabilization of Afghanistan. However, yesterday’s violent assaults represented a clear ‘no’ as the Taliban’s response, and aimed to discredit Karzai’s central government by instilling fear in Kabul’s population. Whether some more moderate elements in the Taliban might be open to future negotiations with the central government is impossible to say, but so long as the insurgents achieve media coverage with bold attacks, the militant hardliners will see their relative positions strengthened.

The security of Kabul is left to Afghanistan’s own police and security forces, in contrast to the rest of the country, where NATO troops are deployed. The capital is an attractive target, both because successful attacks there represent a significant loss of face for the government, and because it is very hard to defend effectively. Afghan forces have numerous checkpoints across Kabul, but security experts have long posed questions about how effective and rigorous these checks really are, and yesterday’s attackers were able to penetrate deep into the city centre with relative ease. The heavy volume of traffic in Kabul also means it is very difficult to provide water-tight security without shutting down the entire economy of the capital.

Afghan government and NATO officials sought to emphasize the positive aspects of the security forces’ quick and effective reaction to the attacks. Indeed, when compared with, for example, the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai and the botched reaction of Indian security authorities, the outcome of yesterday’s assault could have been much worse. ISAF Brigadier General Eric Tremblay said, “I think that strategically we were expecting some kind of sensational attack. But in the end, it demonstrates, in the way the Afghan national security forces are dealing with the operation, their skills and the level of experience they have now to be able to deal with the event.” Amarullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, claimed that “sixty percent of the attackers were killed before they could blow themselves up”, stressing that the security forces “saved tens of Afghan civilians by sacrificing their lives”.

The attacks took place ten days before an international summit in London where international strategy towards Afghanistan will be discussed. Whether the assault will have an effect on deliberations at the conference remains to be seen, but the Taliban definitely view it as a cost-effective public-relations victory. For them, the costs of such an attack are relatively low, only requiring a small group of some 20 well-armed militants. In return, they benefit from extensive national and international news coverage, and continue to sap confidence in the central government. That is why, until a future reconciliation agreement with the Taliban is reached, they will keep on mounting attacks on the capital.

China stonewalls possible sanctions against Iran

On Tuesday, China moved to block future sanctions on Iran, after a meeting between the powers of the ‘P5+1’ - China, the US, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany. The Chinese delegate at those talks reinforced Beijing’s previous position that it does not support sanctions on Iran at present. The United States and European countries have threatened Iran with sanctions if it continues to refuse a deal on its nuclear programme offered last year.

A Chinese foreign ministry official said, “our consistent proposal has been to resolve the Iran nuclear issue appropriately through dialogue and consultation”, in addition to stressing the need for “a more flexible and pragmatic approach”. China’s reluctance means that a United Nations-approved sanctions package is out of the question, because China holds veto power the in the UN Security Council.

Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, issued a renewed warning of sanctions against Iran. She explained that "of course we would prefer it if these (sanctions) could be agreed within the framework of the United Nations Security Council", but continued by saying that if UN assent could not be achieved, Germany will participate in unilateral sanctions “with other countries that are pursuing the same goal”. Should China and Russia, major trading partners with Iran, not participate however, such steps may have little influence.

Deadly violence erupts in Nigerian sectarian clashes

During the weekend, heavy fighting occurred between Muslim and Christian groups in the Nigerian city of Jos, with dozens of killings so far. On Tuesday violent clashes broke out again, as the police attempted to restore order and impose a curfew in the city.

Casualty numbers so far remain unclear, but the Red Cross stated that over 100 people were seriously injured in the fighting and 3,000 had been displaced. The riots commenced when Christian youths protested against the construction of a mosque in a largely Christian-populated area of the city.

Nigeria’s population consists of roughly equal numbers of Muslims, who live mainly in the north of the country, and Christians, in the south. The city of Jos lies in the centre of Nigeria, on the fault line between the two religious communities, and is a frequent flashpoint for sectarian tensions.

UN seeks additional troops for Haiti

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, called for 3,500 more peacekeepers to supplement the 9,000-strong United Nations force in Haiti. Ban Ki-moon visited Haiti on Sunday, asking the Haitians to be patient, “because the whole world is standing behind them”. However, due to chronic delays, aid workers are still struggling to deliver desperately needed food and emergency supplies to the victims in time.

Ban said the extra 3,500 troops were necessary “to take charge of all this security, to help humanitarian assistance be delivered in a safe way”. On Tuesday, the UN is to hold an urgent vote on sending the additional troops. Safety is becoming more and more of a concern in the broken state of Haiti, as acts of violence and looting are emerging becoming more frequent in the capital of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere.

Kenyan police crack down on Somalis after riots

Kenyan security forces raided a Somali suburb of the capital Nairobi on Sunday night, taking away 300 Somali immigrants and an important Muslim activist. The raid followed violent Muslim protests in the heart of Nairobi on Friday, during which at least one person was killed.

The street battles broke out due to the abortive attempt to deport Abdullah al-Faisal, a fundamentalist Muslim cleric from Jamaica. Some protesters were reported to carry the black flags from Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab, which has been linked to al-Qaeda.

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