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

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

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).

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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." 

He goes on to caveat his position by saying: "that is not to say that a positive outcome in Afghanistan is inevitable–it is anything but. However, it does indicate that if we lose, it will be because of our ardent desire to pull out–not because the Taliban have the capacity to evict us or to defeat our Afghan allies."

Well, I lived in Baghdad during the "dark days" and while my experience of Afghanistan is far more limited (a one-month visit in 2010) what I can say is that the two should not be compared. Baghdad was then in the grips of a vicious sectarian civil war that burned in the presence of tens of thousands of US troops. The flames eventually cooled, with whole neighborhoods stripped of their Sunni inhabitants, or vice-versa. I remember the frequent statements from the US government and military that individual insurgent attacks were signs of "desperation" on the part of the attackers.

The Afghan conflict is very different, the Afghan people very different from the Iraqis. Kabul has generally been an oasis throughout 10 years of war. One reason the city's population has swelled (it's tripled since 2001, to about 5 million now) is because it's far safer than much of the rest of Afghanistan. So what the attacks demonstrated was that one of the safest places in the country, where billions have been spent on economic development and training of Afghan security forces, can still be touched.

Most analysts of Afghanistan are most worried about the future and whether the center around Karzai will hold in the face of the inevitable drawdown of US forces. Their concerns don't focus on a successful Taliban march on a capital filled with people who recall the Taliban reign with horror, but on the chances that the military could splinter along the ethnic lines that drove the Taliban civil war after the Soviet Union's departure, with warlords running their own enclaves.

The Kabul-based blogger at "It's Always Sunni in Kabul," has an informed take that occupies the sensible middle ground. Yes, Afghan forces performed well (good news). But no, this was not ANSF's success alone: US Blackhawks fired on some of the attackers in the capital, and ISAF advisers were there with Afghan forces almost every step of the way, "advising." This doesn't mean Afghan troops aren't getting better, just that this performance isn't a meaningful data point on how they'd do on their own.

He agrees with Mr. Boot (and most everyone else) that this was not a tactical success for the attackers by any stretch. They were quickly pinned down and surrounded and all eventually killed or captured.

But the Afghan war is one of perceptions. The Taliban (and Haqqani) strategy, such as it is, is to keep reminding everyone that they're still capable of inflicting damage after 10 years of being hunted by the most capable military on the globe. That's heartening to their supporters, and something to frighten Afghans who don't support them about their future. As the blogger writes:

Kabul is supposed to be the most secure city in Afghanistan, and once again, some insurgent group managed to stockpile weapons and supplies in a half-constructed building at the edge of the diplomatic area here in Kabul and light the city up for hours at a time. If the message is: “We can get you anywhere,” message sent. Just, once they get there, they don’t tend to accomplish much. This speaks to increasing levels of proficiency by the ANSF in their response to the situation, but also to the lack of quality intel/planning to make sure these kinds of events do not happen again. If the playbook had changed dramatically from the events of September of 2011, then those things happen, but in this case it’s almost identical. So someone’s making it very clear that the government of Afghanistan really can’t stop them from doing what they want to do.

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