Since news broke of Friday’s horrific suicide attack on the largely foreign clientele of a Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, attention has understandably focused on the civilians who lost their lives, including two Canadians. But the event, which comes at a critical moment, could also have major implications for the international presence in Afghanistan.
For those of us who live in the national capital region, learning that the slain Canadians were residents of Ottawa and Gatineau was particularly jarring. For some, the news hit even closer. My friend and neighbour, Michael Von Herff, posted this tweet about one of the victims: “Heartbreak. Peter McSheffery was a wonderful wonderful man. A big heart & devoted to serving others. I will miss him.”
One of the most touching accounts came from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet, a frequent visitor to Kabul over the past decade. She described the “ebullient spirit” of the Lebanese restaurant owner, Kamal Hamade, a man with a “warm and ready smile” who reportedly died trying to defend his restaurant and clients against armed assailants who followed the suicide bomber into the building.
More stories and reminiscences will undoubtedly emerge in the coming days. But beyond the terrible murder of these individuals, will this incident have any impact on the international presence in Afghanistan?
It certainly comes at a delicate moment. President Hamid Karzai – nearing the end of his second (and, according to the Afghan constitution, final) term in office – is under considerable pressure to conclude a bilateral security agreement with the United States. If an agreement is not reached, the Obama Administration may withdraw all its troops from the country by the end of this year. However, negotiations on the agreement have apparently stalled, in part because Mr. Karzai has added new demands that the U.S. won’t accept.
In this context, the restaurant attack might serve as a bracing reminder to Mr. Karzai that he and whoever succeeds him as president – indeed, the whole apparatus of Afghan government institutions established a decade ago – will be exposed to an emboldened insurgency if U.S. forces leave Afghanistan entirely. In theory, this realization should push him towards an agreement. But In practice, all bets are off. Mr. Karzai’s behaviour has been so erratic in recent years, the incident could propel him either towards a deal with the U.S. or away from one – or it could have no effect at all.
The more immediate impact of Friday’s attack will likely be on the civilian international personnel in Afghanistan, as Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs of the Afghan Analysts Network point out. Unlike most Taliban assaults, which have targeted the offices of Afghan or foreign agencies, most of which are behind concrete blast walls and cordons of security, this one was launched against international civilians in a relatively unprotected location. As a precaution, the international institutions, non-governmental organizations and national governments who employ these people may place additional restrictions on the movements of their employees and contractors in Afghanistan, keeping them away from locations that are not heavily protected.
If these new restrictions are more than temporary, however, they will be very bad news for the international aid effort in Afghanistan, which is still enormous. Long before last Friday, the steady withdrawal of international forces was already making it harder for international civilians to oversee development projects in many parts of country. The U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction underlined this problem in a letter last October, which included maps showing a dramatic decrease between 2009 and 2014 in the amount of Afghan territory accessible to civilians who oversee U.S.-funded projects and programs.
The Lebanese restaurant incident can only worsen this problem, but much will depend on whether Friday’s attack is seen as a harbinger of new Taliban strategy. As Clark and Roehrs write: “Pressure from home countries is likely to rise, demanding more restrictions or the withdrawal of personnel. But more security regulations and less personnel means even more compromises on the quality of aid and policymaking. It will widen even further the separation of Afghans and internationals and will impact the already impaired ability of organisations to assess needs or monitor aid.”
Indeed, this may have been precisely what the attackers wanted to achieve by striking the “soft target” of international civilians dining in Kabul.
Roland Paris is director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A version of this column appears on the CIPS blog.