The Serena Bombing, Up Close, And Where We Go From Here

by Joshua Foust on 1/16/2008 · 3 comments

Serena Hotel entrance

Barnett Rubin passes along a harrowing account of the bombing of the Serena Hotel in Kabul. It looks especially calculated to generate not just “another bombing,” but specifically to instill fear amongst the foreigners.

This whole thing has me really spooked, now Taliban are vowing more attacks on Kabul restaurants where foreigners and expatriates are attending. I am unsure what to make of all these tragic events however the situation in Kabul is obviously deteriorating.

Indeed. As Rubin relates:

Whatever happens next, this is a major decision point for everyone concerned in Afghanistan. Such operations will continue. Even if the vast majority do not succeed, the result will be a mix of the following:

1. Many if not most of the civilian foreign expatriates currently involved in the delivery of aid or other activities in Afghanistan will leave.
2. Most of the rest will be concentrated into a Forbidden City like the Green Zone in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy is already such a compound, and the area around it in Wazir Akbar Khan is already so fortified that it might not take much more to turn that and the adjacent areas of Shahr-i Naw (palace, main ministries, UN offices, embassies) into such a zone.

This is happening at the same time that it is necessary to increase development assistance, as the absorption capacity of the Afghan government and society is finally starting to increase. These alternatives are unacceptable. They would make aid even more wasteful and out of touch than it is now.

It’s worth reading in full. A major pillar of Rubin’s complaint—which mirrors a longstanding complaint of mine against the aid regime in Afghanistan (ever since my senior thesis at CU-Boulder)—is that aid is in parallel to the government in Kabul, not channeled through it. Thus, right when the government is in its most desperate need of legitimacy, the entire international community arrays itself especially to undermine that legitimacy—making the job of extending Kabul’s reach beyond Kabul all but impossible (somewhat summarized last February—I tied it then to simple inertia, in that NGOs were used to operating without government, but I no longer think it was that coincidental). Additionally, the UN has been all but cut out of the aid process, which further reduces reconstruction to the activities of individual countries and specific, well-heeled NGOs like the ICRC or World Vision.

The result is a vast infrastructure… for foreigners. This is why reconstruction and resources are what Afghans seem to want just as much as security—and why the very noticeable lack of investment by the West (President Bush’s declaration of “A New Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan rings especially hollow six years after the fact) creates such discontent. Thus, the Taliban see a big, juicy, symbolic target—the Serena Hotel, a luxurious sanctuary in a city that cannot provide running water to 2 million people—and they strike at its very meaning. Rubin relates, again:

I am sure that the people of Kabul don’t want more violence in their city. They were badly frightened by the riots in 2006. But there is huge resentment and anger building up at the overbearing foreign presence. The May 2006 riots were sparked by an accident where US military vehicles killed a pedestrian. Afghans see and often do not distinguish among the “Chinese restaurant” brothels and the glittering restaurants (by Afghan standards, not ours) serving luxuries, including alcohol, to foreigners, some of whom are being highly paid to destroy Afghanistan’s opium livelihood, which Afghan Islamic figures say is no worse than the alcohol they drink at night after destroying farmers’ poppy crops.

Many Afghans think that money that is supposed to be used to help them is instead being used to pay for the good life for foreigners in the Serena hotel. Alas, it is true. When aid donors boast of how much technical assistance they are giving Afghanistan, they provide data on the size of the contracts they have given to consultants. I have spent some of the grant and contract money that pay for my salary and travel expenses on meals and tea at the Serena Hotel. These expenses are counted as someone’s assistance to Afghanistan.

In other words, the problems facing Afghanistan are systemic, at least from an outsiders’ perspective. They begin at the very notion of international reconstruction and development aid, and end when the insurgents find a novel way of attacking that foundation.

What of reports the attack was planned by Siraj Haqqani, the son of Taliban military commander Jalaluddin Haqqani (rumored dead or in Pakistan)? If Carlotta Gall is to be believed—and in my limited experience, she is—then Pakistan might be finally coming to grips with the very common-sense realization that the tribal groups it deliberately cultivated the last twenty years as extremist foot soldiers in Afghanistan and Kashmir have spun wildly out of its control, as evidenced by the bombs directed at both the Serena Hotel and at Benazir Bhutto. And, obviously, well before that. From that NYT report:

As the military has moved against them, the militants have turned on their former handlers, the officials said. Joining with other extremist groups, they have battled Pakistani security forces and helped militants carry out a record number of suicide attacks last year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto.

The growing strength of the militants, many of whom now express support for Al Qaeda’s global jihad, presents a grave threat to Pakistan’s security, as well as NATO efforts to push back the Taliban in Afghanistan. American officials have begun to weigh more robust covert operations to go after Al Qaeda in the lawless border areas because they are so concerned that the Pakistani government is unable to do so.

Indeed, the depressing tendency of Pakistani soldiers to surrender rather than fight their “brothers” would indicate the Musharraf government is incapable of securing its tribal region (Uncle Pervy’s limp protestations of “toughness” notwithstanding). Which is probably why all that talk about inserting SOF into NFWP is so damned tempting to the myopic pinheads who make these decisions in Arlington.

But that is precisely, to revive that argument, why “exporting Anbar” is such a bad idea. Even ignoring the very salient fact that loyalty there is only bought, and the money available is not infinite or sacrosanct, whatever fighting that may be happening in NWFP is almost surely just another iteration of the tribal warfare that has existed there for centuries. Attempting to co-opt it, or worse yet “impose” some kind of “patchwork” coalition of anti-Taliban tribes (assuming a loose definition of such, given the apparent attractiveness of Maulvi Nazir), would be beyond folly—simply the latest iteration of the West arming whatever temporary army suits its temporary needs, everyone’s long-term interests be damned.

Putting the above in a sentence: the U.S., and the international community, seems to be critically misunderstanding the very nature of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. And that is why things are sliding downhill by the week.

Kabul Serena Hotel pictures courtesy Agha Khan Development Network.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

Inkan1969 January 17, 2008 at 10:33 am

I am very thankful for Naser Shahalemi’s account of the attack. I have not really found any other first person account of the event. Not even any press photographs of the damage to the Serena. Perhaps someone should e-mail the New York Times or BBC News or the U.S. networks about Naser’s blog entry, so that they can give his information some attention. (I’d e-mail my local TV station about the blog entry if I thought they cared.)

Indeed, this attack is a psychological victory for the Taliban. It’s similar to your description of the raid on Arghandab; they did this to show that they CAN. I can only hope that this catastrophe further stings the Bush administration into realizing that Afghanistan NEEDS more attention and a rethink of strategy.

Laurence January 17, 2008 at 4:56 pm

Josh, Thanks for the interesting post.

BTW: Have you ever posted your senior thesis on Registan? Maybe you could put a reminder link up, if you did–or post it now, if you didn’t.

Your thesis sounds compelling…

Joshua Foust January 17, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Inkan, luckily Nasser’s account has gotten a ton of attention at several very high profile blogs. But the psychological impact, as you state, cannot be quite so easily dispersed. This was devastating to an international community that, at least in Kabul, enjoyed a certain degree of invincibility—in so small part because the suicide bombs have normally been limited to attacks on the military and police.

Laurence, I think I’ve linked to it before. If not, I’ll have to dig it up, see if I have a PDF or something. It was really little more than a literature review of how counternarcotics was interacting with security and reconstruction, with a small section tacked on the end discussing ways forward.

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