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Smoke and flames rise from the Intercontinental hotel during a battle between NATO-led forces and suicide bombers and Taliban insurgents in Kabul June 29, 2011. (STRINGER/AFGHANISTAN/REUTERS)
Smoke and flames rise from the Intercontinental hotel during a battle between NATO-led forces and suicide bombers and Taliban insurgents in Kabul June 29, 2011. (STRINGER/AFGHANISTAN/REUTERS)

Analysis

Kabul strike a 'hearts and minds' victory for Taliban Add to ...

The Taliban's audacious attack attack on the heavily defended, iconic Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul is another key victory in the battle fought for Afghan "hearts and minds."

After a decade of being propped up by foreign taxpayer billions and the blood of foreign troops - Canadians among them - the corrupt regime headed by Hamid Karzai can't provide security, let alone decent government, in the heart of the county.

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Militarily, a clutch of suicidal jihadists gunning down defenceless hotel guests isn't much of a battle. But insurgencies aren't about gaining ground but winning control and the psychological advantage.

For the rural Taliban to stage another bloody and high-profile attack in Kabul strikes fear into urban, sophisticated Afghans and should force outsiders to rethink the confident assertions that the Karzai regime can defend democracy, freedom and the rights of women while foreign troops march home claiming victory.

In the wake of President Barack Obama's "faster drawdown" speech last week, the attack signals a stunning Taliban capacity to strike at key moments. Whether the stark evidence that the surge of U.S. forces hasn't succeeded as well as the president might wish will cause Americans to rethink the "get out" as soon as possible seems unlikely.

An unpopular war won't win more support at home while the president says it's time to leave and the Taliban prove the Karzai government is weak. That Mr. Karzai often follows such setbacks with intemperate outbursts attacking the Western governments propping up his regime doesn't help win any "hearts and minds" in America, Canada or the European nations fighting in Afghanistan.

Much has been made of the merits of "talking to the Taliban" in recent month, usually framed in the context of it's time to offer the battered - if not quite beaten - Islamic fundamentalists a place at the negotiating table. That sort of pragmatic magnanimity from victors makes good sense, given that large chunks of Afghan society, especially the rural and poor Pashtuns in the south, genuinely embrace Talib principles. But if "talking to the Taliban" is a cover story for quitting a long, perhaps unwinnable, fight that Western politicians with war-weary publics have lost stomach for, then the endgame in Afghanistan may look familiar.

The British and the Russians both declared victory after failing to subjugate the Afghans. This time it was supposed to be different. The U.S.-led forces - now numbering more than 150,000 - have a UN mandate, an "invite" from a democratically-elected government, and were in Afghanistan to rebuild a society shattered by 30 years of war. A decade later, some nations like Canada and Holland have already called it quits, pulling out of combat as though wars were fought in shifts rather than for objectives. Mr. Obama seems to have decided that there is no vital strategic interest for America in Afghanistan.

As Kabulis clean up the blood and debris from the latest Taliban attack, the grim reality remains that Mr. Karzai's government and security forces can't protect them in the heart of the capital, let alone in the southern Taliban heartlands of Kandahar and Helmand.

Taliban attacks in Kabul - including several on other hotels frequented by foreigners, a brazen strike on the Ministry of Justice last year, another at the Central Bank - are classics in terms of insurgencies.

Strike at the icons of the ruling regime and show it to be weak and vulnerable.

Mr. Karzai has - so far - no convincing answer for the millions of Afghans who remember the last time the West left them to the rule of the Taliban.

Follow on Twitter: @PaulKoring

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