Four weeks after Taliban negotiators walked out of secret negotiations in Doha, their armed units have sent out a stark message to the world: although Mullah Omar's armies might never be able to overrun Kabul and re-establish his emirate, they can deny Afghanistan peace, perhaps indefinitely. Faced with multiple-target attacks in Kabul and other towns, Afghanistan's often-reviled security forces responded with professional skill their Indian counterparts would be hard-pressed to match, killing 36 terrorists while losing only eight of their own; just three civilians died. Yet, it is evident that even a much degraded Taliban — hard hit by the loss of mid-level commanders, and the decimation of its rank-and-file — retains the ability to strike hard. Taliban insurgents backed by Pakistani jihadists have seized hold of remote mountain territories in eastern and southern Afghanistan, slipping back across the border when challenged. In 2014, western armies will complete their drawing-down, leaving a residual force of perhaps 15,000 inside Afghanistan. Funding has been secured for a reduced Afghan military of about 190,000 troops, against the 240,000 it now has. President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to sign agreements that will institutionalise Western support for this army, and allow counter-insurgency operations to continue.
No one knows for certain, however, how well — and for how long — these arrangements will hold. In a best-case scenario, Afghanistan's armed forces will receive enough funding and support to defend the state. In a worst-case one, the army could dissolve back into the ethnic militia from which it arose — opening the way for civil war, and Taliban control of parts of Afghanistan. For India, this second scenario is a grave concern. Taliban successes could provide strategic space to Pakistan-based groups — among them, the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has been fighting in Kunar province for several years now. This would not only make India vulnerable to attack, but push Pakistan itself further towards the abyss. For years now, Afghan and world leaders have been calling on Islamabad to crack down hard on Pakistan-based jihadists like Jalaluddin Haqqani — the Taliban-linked warlord whose operatives are alleged to have staged Sunday's attacks. Powerful elements in Islamabad's military establishment, though, continue to back proxies in Afghanistan, seeing them as allies. Perched on the edge of a war without end, Afghanistan desperately needs the international community to demonstrate a durable commitment to the country's future. Even more, however, it needs the world to redouble its efforts make Pakistan's army change course.