The wave of Afghan assassinations underscores a complicated security situation

A reporter struggles to figure out what the murder of two sources says about the state of the Afghanistan war.

Dar Yasin/AP
Afghan army soldiers carry coffin of Mohammed Ashim Watanwal who was killed by armed gunmen during Sunday's attack, during his funeral procession in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 18.

Afghanistan has always seemed to be a difficult country to read, but as the NATO has begun looking to exit, ever more divergent narratives are emerging. As a firsthand observer to it all, I'm often asked which narrative to believe. Is or isn't Afghanistan ready for drawdown?

The best answer I can come up with? It’s complicated.

Last night, Hashim Watanwal, a member of parliament from Uruzgan province was killed while visiting Jan Mohammed Khan, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai and major power-broker here. Two suicide bombers entered Mr. Khan’s house in an a presumably secure neighborhood of Kabul and killed the two men.

While I’d never met Mr. Watanwal in person, I’d talked to him several times over the phone, most recently on Thursday, and he proved a helpful and friendly source. He’s also the second person I’ve talked to in recent months who has been killed within days of speaking with me: The other was Gen. Khan Mohammad Mujahid, police chief for Kandahar Province.

Though Watanwal and General Mujahid held different opinions about where the country was headed shortly before their deaths – Watanwal was cynical and Mujahid said he’d seen major improvements – their murders inside secure compounds stand as a stark reminder of how unstable Afghanistan remains.

About 12 hours after Watanwal and Khan’s assassination, I attended US Army Gen. David Petraeus’s change of command ceremony. For anyone who follows Afghanistan, the speakers’ remarks may have been predictable. They spent a lot of time elaborating the successes of international and Afghan security forces. And then ceded that the gains were fragile and reversible, as NATO commanders tend to say.

For firsthand observers to the conflict, it’s often easy to poke fun at NATO’s seemingly indefatigable public optimism in the face of incidents like Sunday night's assassination, however, it’s also sometimes difficult to know who is right.

Just a few days before Mujahid was killed inside the police headquarters in Kandahar this past April, I sat in his office drinking tea and chatting about the security situation. Later in the afternoon, I planned to drive into the Arghandab district, an area that just a year before was home to some of the most brutal fighting in the country. I made the trip without any problems.

“I am hopeful that we will have a safe and secure environment in our city,” he told me, somewhat annoyed that I continued to press him with concerns that the situation might not be as good as it seemed. “We have destroyed and eradicated [militants’] safe havens, so they don’t have bases to plan their attacks and operations.”

A few days later, a man dressed in an Afghan police uniform approached Mujahid, hugged him, and detonated a suicide bomb in the courtyard of the police station.

Does that mean everything he said about security improvements in the south of Afghanistan was wrong? Again, it’s complicated. There are definite gains, but the region still has a long way to go before the chief of police won’t have to worry about being killed by one of his own men or someone dressed like one of his own men.

When it comes to consuming the news about Afghanistan, the best advice I can give readers hoping to make sense of the situation, is to take nothing at face value. It’s always more complicated than it seems, no matter how earnest the convictions or who they're coming from.

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