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Afghanistan: overinterpreting the Kabul attack

A coordinated attack in the heart of Kabul - which coincided with attacks in three other provinces - isn't a good thing. But sign of imminent defeat or victory? Hardly.

By Staff writer / April 17, 2012

Afghan students listen to a speech by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai during a gathering in Kabul on April 17.

Omar Sobhani/Reuters

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The simple fact was that Kabul was hit by a coordinated attack, probably by the Haqqani Network (though the Taliban were happy to take credit) on Sunday. The attacks in Kabul and in Nangarhar, Paktia, and Logar provinces ended in defeat for the assailants. Of 37 attackers in Kabul, 36 were killed and one captured, at the cost of 11 Afghan soldiers' deaths and four civilians.

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What it means is another thing.

On balance, the answer is "not much." Sure, there was overheated handwringing in some quarters. A Reuters report speculated that the day-long attack might have the same effect on US public opinion as the months-long Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968, which saw assaults on dozens of cities and the bloodiest year of the war for US troops, with over 10,000 killed by June (no Americans died in Sunday's attack).

On the other side was Gen. John Allen, commander of international troops in Afghanistan, who spun the attack as evidence of insurgent weakness. "The very fact that the enemy chose these particular targets speaks volumes about where we are in this campaign and the degree to which we have advanced the very things the enemy fears the most – a sovereign Afghanistan responsive to its people and an enduring commitment by the international community. Each attack was meant to send a message: that legitimate governance and Afghan sovereignty are in peril. The ANSF response itself is proof enough of that folly."

The gap between these points of view is a reminder that the war in Afghanistan is a war of perceptions now.

For US officers and supporters of the war, the task is to send a message of steady progress that just a little more commitment can cement. For the Taliban and other insurgent groups, it's to send a message of unhindered ability to strike. On both sides, the arguments over the insurgency's strength or weakness also feeds directly into proposed peace talks with the Taliban. The stronger they are, or can at least make themselves to look, the better their bargaining position (the talks are currently on hold).

But the reality is that we know very little today that we didn't know last week. Afghanistan remains a dangerous place, with President Hamid Karzai, the man installed as Afghanistan's leader by international forces, still a very uncertain call. President Karzai called the Kabul attack an "intelligence failure for us and especially NATO."

Max Boot, a conservative commentator who can be relied on to insist the Afghan war (or any US war, really) is going well, maintained his record with a piece for Commentary magazine in which he portrays the attacks as good news.

"For all the headlines about the capital city being “rocked” by gunfire and explosions, the impact of the insurgent attacks–most likely the work of the Haqqani Network, not the Taliban per se–was negligible," he writes. "I visited the capital two weeks ago and found, as I have previously noted, that the streets are thronged with people: hardly the sign of a city under siege. I remember Baghdad in the dark days of 2006-2007 when entire neighborhoods were ghost towns. There is nothing like that going on in Kabul..... If this is the best the Haqqanis could do for a comeback, their efforts are indicative of the growing weakness of the insurgency and the growing strength of the security forces." 

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