Security Exchange News

The Taliban Vendetta

24 January 2018

On Saturday evening, at least 22 people were killed when Taliban insurgents stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. While some unconfirmed reports claim the death toll may be much higher – as many as 43 – most observers agree that at least 14 foreign nationals were killed. Nine Ukrainians, one German, one Greek, and one Kazakh citizen were identified among those dead. The US State Department also confirmed that some Americans were killed and wounded, but did not provide exact numbers. Approximately 160 people were rescued from the hotel, including around 40 foreign nationals.

Witnesses and survivors from the attack claimed the gunmen were explicitly targeting foreign nationals, with one Afghan citizen claiming he was spared his life after he said he was an Afghan. The attackers were allegedly asking where the foreigners were, in what has been seen by some as an insurgent attack on Western values. Hotels, foreign institutions, and aid agencies are often targeted by militant groups because they allegedly represent foreign interests and the attacks often attract more media attention. Earlier today the Save the Children charity was targeted in an Islamic State (IS) suicide bombing in Jalalabad, Nangarhar.

The Taliban has confirmed it was behind the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, claiming to have killed "tens of foreign invaders and their puppets". The Taliban is firmly against the military presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, especially the US troops - claiming their deployment is a form of foreign invasion. The continued deployment of foreign forces is seen as an example of the government’s fragility, as the insurgents claim the government is not strong enough to hold the country without foreign support. Taliban leaders claim the government is too exposed to external influence, making it an enabler of foreign occupation.

The Intercontinental Hotel is a state-owned business - separate from the global chain under the same name - and was considered a landmark in the capital city. The Taliban knew attacking the well-known hotel, often frequented by foreign nationals, would ensure global media coverage. The hotel was previously targeted by the Taliban in a 2011 suicide bombing which killed at least 21 people. However, the hotel’s security – taken over by a private company less than three weeks ago – should have prevented a group of armed attackers gaining entrance to the building. Questions have also been raised in the aftermath of the attack, as to how five-to-six Taliban insurgents - armed with firearms, hand grenades, and other light weapons - managed to bypass at least two security checkpoints before even reaching the hotel, sparking claims the attackers had inside help from government personnel.

A representative from the Afghan government has claimed that the attackers were disguised in army uniforms and shot the checkpoint guards dead before proceeding to the hotel; however, some people have challenged this version of events, suggesting an alarm should have been raised immediately had that been the case. Instead, it’s implied that the attackers had enough time to enter the hotel via the kitchens and order food in the restaurant before pulling out their weapons.

As a result of clear security failures, the government and the hotel’s security provider will face public pressure to review the incident and provide a clear answer as to how the insurgents managed to get inside the hotel with little-to-no resistance. If it’s found the insurgents did indeed have inside help, the Afghan government will have to face the public backlash. The Taliban has often criticised the Afghan government as being controlled by foreign interests, claiming it is a puppet of the US. By carrying out high-profile attacks such as this, the Taliban possibly aims to shine a light on perceived weaknesses in the government security forces, widening divisions and fuelling public anger with government incompetence.

The Taliban’s motives and their attitude towards the foreign forces are not black and white, however. While the Taliban want to fuel political and social instability by delegitimising the Afghan government as a vessel for foreign interference, they also appear to be attempting to gain inadvertent recognition from the US as an equal counterpart. During the last year, the Taliban released an open letter to the US President Donald Trump, demanding the withdrawal of US troops after citing the US presence as the main obstacle to peace in Afghanistan. Although the underlying point behind the letter was to put the US under pressure by dangling the false promise of peace in exchange for a US withdrawal, the letter also sought to provoke a direct response. It should be assumed that the leaders of the Taliban know that the US won’t simply agree to withdraw their troops, leaving Afghanistan unstable and vulnerable. Regardless of the nature of the response, if Trump had engaged with the Taliban, it could have been seen as an acknowledgement of a classified terrorist organisation having to negotiate power at a global level.