It has now been nearly a week since it was discovered that Korans and other Islamic material had been burned at Bagram Air Field. Violence flared in response to the news. Most recently, a car bomb exploded at the gate of Jalalabad airport — essentially a military air base — killing at least nine people, while three others were killed in Uruzgan province. The Taliban claimed responsibility and described both events as revenge for the burning of the Koran. This follows the death of two U.S. officers inside the Afghan Interior Ministry in Kabul, apparently at the hands of an Afghan colleague working in the ministry.
There is no question that the burning of the Koran, accidental or not, generates rage in Afghanistan. But there is also a war being waged and a negotiation being carried out, and while the rage might be genuine, a week of violence serves a strategic purpose. This is particularly true in the ministry killings, where the point was driven home that even in a place Americans regard as secure and even while working with people who are seen as allies, the fact is that Americans are not safe, the building is not secure and their allies are not as reliable as they might think.
There are intense negotiations going on between the Taliban, the United States and the Afghan government. They also involve elements in Pakistan. These negotiations are structurally even more complex than the four-way negotiations at the end of the Vietnam War. The Taliban's goals include securing a rapid U.S. withdrawal with no remaining residual force and a new coalition government that is dominated by Taliban. The United States also wants to withdraw combat forces, but it would like a residual force to remain behind for training, to protect the Kabul government and to provide an enduring guarantor against Afghanistan's serving as sanctuary for transnational terrorism. Washington is prepared to have the elements join this government as junior coalition partners. The Pakistanis want to make sure that whatever the final agreement, it creates a sufficiently stable Afghanistan so that violence will not spill over into Pakistan or draw Pakistani forces into Afghanistan.
The Taliban understand that any U.S. withdrawal will be staged over time. The Americans are aware that the Taliban are not going to be playing a junior role in the current regime. The Pakistanis know that they are going to have to become involved in Afghanistan in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal. While all of this may be known, the precise details of when the United States withdraws, how much of a residual force remains and where, and what sort of political arrangement will be made are uncertain.
The negotiations appear to have entered a fairly intense stage, and winter will end soon, signaling the beginning of the traditional campaign season. For the Taliban, it is important to demonstrate to the Americans not only that the Taliban continue to have capabilities, but also that U.S. forces are far less secure than the past two years of tactical successes might imply. The Taliban imperative is to make it known that the tempo of violence is in their hands and that the United States can do little to control it. The more the Taliban can demonstrate this, the more eager the United States will be to leave. In addition, this is an election year in the United States. There is not overwhelming political pressure for an early withdrawal, but an increase in casualties and instability could generate that pressure.
The attacks thus make sense, with or without the Koran burnings. The killings in the ministry generated a particular psychological atmosphere of insecurity throughout the system where U.S. and allied troops interact with and train indigenous officials, officers and soldiers. From a negotiation standpoint, the prospect of increased instability coupled with the ability to conduct further small unit attacks as the spring thaw approaches creates a favorable negotiating situation for the Taliban. Casualties have been low by recent terms so far, but the prospect is what matters, given the psychological component. Violence and insecurity could cause the United States to become more flexible in the negotiations.
The anger over the Koran burnings might well be honest and intense, but it also opened the door for a series of actions that could enhance the Taliban's negotiating position. It is in the Taliban's interest to ensure that they are the dominant factor in determining the tempo of violence in the coming months. Any meaningful increase in violence and casualties would leave the United States with the option of increasing their own operations beyond what it expected, or reaching out to the Pakistanis to facilitate a settlement. Either option puts the United States at a disadvantage and reduces the chance of achieving the solution it wants, but simply absorbing increasing punishment does not seem to be an option.