The assassination of Logar Governor Arsala Jamal today is just the latest reminder that the Taliban remain a power to be reckoned with in Afghanistan after 12 years of war. Meanwhile, talks on extending the US presence in the country beyond next year are going nowhere fast, in part because of the Taliban's continuing ability to threaten the lives of senior leaders.
Mr. Jamal was murdered at a mosque, by a bomb hidden in the microphone he'd just started speaking through, at a service to commemorate Eid al-Adha, the Muslim day of sacrifice. There had been at least four previous attempts on his life.
Jamal was not just any governor. A confidante of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jamal was Karzai's campaign manager in the fraud-plagued 2009 election that returned Karzai to power. With Afghanistan gearing up for new presidential elections next spring and with President Karzai term-limited from office, he was likely to play a key role in Karzai's efforts to maneuver a candidate of his preference into the top seat.
His death, probably at the hands of the Afghan Taliban given the movement's strength in Logar, is just the latest in a long line of senior officials killed by the group.
The governor of a district in Kunduz province was killed by a suicide bomber at the end of August. Kunduz Governor Muhammad Omar was killed by a Taliban attack on a mosque in October 2010. Since 2006, when the first post-invasion governor was killed by the Taliban, at least 21 governors, members of parliament, senior police officials, and senior government administrators have been assassinated (my own informal count; the real number is probably higher).
The continued targeting of government officials by the Taliban does not indicate the movement is particularly interested at peace talks at the moment. In fact, the Taliban probably thinks it's holding a winning hand, with the prospect of a full NATO and US military withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 becoming more likely.
The US insists a deal will be struck to keep US troops in Afghanistan. But the winds have not been favorable lately.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said at a press conference with Karzai on Saturday that a so-called “Bilateral Security Agreement,” which would provide the legal authority for an extended US presence in the country, was close to being nailed down.
"We have resolved in these last 24 hours the major issues the president went through," Kerry told reporters, shortly after Karzai recited his now familiar list of criticisms of US military actions in Afghanistan.
Secretary Kerry's upbeat tone doesn't stand up to scrutiny, however. Part of what Kerry and Karzai agreed to was leaving the question of immunity for US troops from Afghan prosecution to the parliament and a planned loya jirga (a gathering of senior tribal figures) next month.
Immunity is the biggest of the major issues standing in the way of a security agreement. Karzai's constant bristling at what he describes as US military brutality is embedded in a deep political reality: Most Afghans don't like foreign troops in their homes and towns, and consider the elevation of foreigners above national laws a slap in the face.
To have US troops subject to Afghan law and prosecuted by the country's corrupt police and court system would be unthinkable for President Barack Obama (or any other US leader). Imagine a US soldier dragged before a politicized Afghan court for alleged crimes carried out during combat duties.
So the equation is simple: No immunity, no Bilateral Security Agreement. But since immunity is a hot-button issue for Afghan politicians and average citizens alike, it's hard to see both a loya jirga and the parliament signing off on the idea.
While the current arrangement has more than a year to run, planning for an extended mission in Afghanistan gets more difficult with each lost day. In July, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said for planning purposes, he wanted an agreement in place by this month.
Meanwhile, the Taliban reiterated its opposition to a continued foreign military presence in a press release reportedly written by Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar today, warning government officials not to approve an extended US presence beyond the end of 2014.
"Those who would sign could not be called a representative loya jirga of the country. Their decisions are not acceptable," the statement quoted Omar as saying. "The invaders should know that their limited bases will never be accepted. The current armed jihad will continue against them with more momentum."
Given its demonstrated ability to kill Afghan politicians, his words will be closely considered by both members of parliament and delegates to the loya jirga.
(This story was edited after first posting to correct how long the US has been at war in Afghanistan).