Kabul attack: Is Afghanistan ready to take over NATO's security duties?

NATO’s Afghanistan coalition lauded Afghan police and security forces for responding ‘quickly and professionally’ to the Kabul attack. But the raid will probably provide fodder for critics of President Obama’s plan to draw down US troops in the country.

Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
An Afghan man walks past the Intercontinental Hotel after an attack by Taliban fighters and a response by Afghan security forces backed by NATO helicopters in Kabul on June 29.

The Taliban’s objective in sending suicide bombers into a prominent hotel in Kabul Tuesday night was more than to simply cause mayhem.

Beyond that, it was to cast a pall over a major international conference beginning in the Afghan capital Wednesday on the upcoming transfer of control of the country’s security levers from NATO to the Afghan government.

The attack’s repercussions also reached Washington, where some in Congress had already been questioning President Obama’s faster-than-expected drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan, which the president announced a week ago.

The Kabul conference, even though it was not scheduled for the fortified Hotel Inter-Continental Kabul at the center of the attack, will now proceed with the reality hanging over it that the Taliban is still capable of planning and executing complex operations targeting the capital – and that Afghan security forces cannot as yet confront such attacks on their own.

NATO’s Afghanistan coalition, the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, dispatched Blackhawk helicopters early Wednesday morning to assist in the fight. In a statement Wednesday morning, ISAF Headquarters lauded Afghan police and security forces for responding “quickly and professionally” to the attack, which left six insurgents and as many as 10 others, mostly Afghans, dead.

ISAF’s director of public affairs, Rear Adm. Vic Beck, said the Afghan forces “demonstrat[ed] their ability to defeat the insurgents and protect Afghans in jeopardy,” before adding: “This attack will do nothing to prevent the security transition process from moving forward.”

While that is probably true, the attack will probably provide fodder for critics of Mr. Obama’s drawdown plan, who say that US forces (which make up the bulk of the ISAF coalition) need more time at current levels to solidify gains made against the Taliban since Obama’s surge of 33,000 troops hit the ground more than a year ago.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, the Marine general whom Obama tapped to succeed Gen. David Petraeus as commander of the ISAF dodged requests for an assessment of the president’s plan – but hinted he would have preferred more troops longer.

Lt. Gen. John Allen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he supports Obama’s decision, even though the plan entails a faster drawdown than he would have preferred. Calling Obama’s timetable “a bit more aggressive than we had anticipated,” Allen said, “I support the president’s decision and believe that we can accomplish our objectives” under the new plan.

Those words echoed the careful assessments of other military leaders. Recently Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that the drawdown plans are “more aggressive and incur more risk” than what the Pentagon preferred.

Even though Allen’s Senate hearing took place hours before the Kabul hotel attack, the general underscored one concern that the attack brought out: the training and readiness of Afghan forces to take over their country’s security.

Despite advances both in the numbers of trained Afghan security forces and police and in their skills, the international coalition’s training program is falling short, Allen said. The program, he said, is short almost 500 trainers, and it will also need some 200 more military teams for Afghan forces to team up with in the transition process.

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