US Embassy attack raises concerns of a shift in Taliban strategy

The US Embassy attack and others around Kabul cause few casualties but may signal the Taliban's desire to engage in a politically and psychologically effective war of attrition.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters
Afghan police run toward the building, which the Taliban insurgents took over during an attack near the US embassy, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Tuesday, Sept. 13. The insurgents killed at least six people, including four Afghan policemen, and wounded 19 in the five-hour siege of the embassy and other simultaneous attacks in the capital, Afghan officials said.

Despite headlines that the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul Tuesday demonstrates the reach of the insurgency, defense analysts argue that at first glance, the strike doesn’t seem all that sophisticated, or even tricky, to pull off.

Insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles took over a high-rise construction site near the embassy, taking shots at the high-walled compound and other targets.

The insurgents killed at least six people, including four Afghan policemen, and wounded 19 in the five-hour siege of the embassy and other simultaneous attacks in the capital, Afghan officials said.

“By itself, it’s unimportant and doesn’t reverse a pattern of gains at the tactical level,” says Anthony Cordesman, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The attack, however, is important and troubling, analysts add, because it may signal a worrisome shift in the way the insurgency has decided to wage war against America and its NATO partners.

Ultimately, offensives like this – which follow on the heels of a truck bomb assault on a base in Wardak Province, which borders Kabul, Saturday and another this summer on the Intercontinental Hotel, a popular spot with Westerners in the capital – may prove considerably more effective for the insurgency than fighting troops on battlefields in the south and east.

For their part, US military officials tend to argue that these sorts of large-scale attacks represent the “last gasp” of an insurgency whose capabilities and leadership have been steadily degraded.

And that may well be true, says Andrew Exum, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who argues that the attack Tuesday should not be viewed as a commentary on the abilities of the Afghan security forces, who have kept relative peace in the capital since they took over responsibility for security there, he adds.

Dr. Cordesman concurs. “No matter how you provide perimeter defense, there will always be some area, some weakness in the structure.”

Instead, it may portend a realization on the part of insurgents that rather than attack Afghan soldiers and police, the benefit of the attack on the US Embassy – and the popular Intercontinental Hotel – lies in the political message it sends.

“The message they’re sending here is very clear,” Cordesman says. “If you can constantly create the image that you’re active, that you’re capable of carrying out large-scale attacks in areas where NATO is claiming security, you keep the pressure up to leave – to put an end to the war.”

“The objective of these attacks is to inflict psychological, more than physical, damage,” Dr. Exum adds.

It may signal a shift in an insurgency from one interested in battlefield body counts to one that realizes it is fighting a war of attrition.

Tuesday’s attack follows a recent pattern of assassinations and willingness to strike US bases, no matter that the end result is often relatively few casualties for NATO forces. “These are tactics that insurgencies use when they come under pressure historically,” Cordesman says.

Yet it doesn’t matter if the insurgency is under pressure – or even losing, he adds. These sorts of offensives often prove quite effective, since rather than result in a battlefield victory, they are simply meant to force political accommodation.

The insurgency can exploit and win strategically “even though it has suffered a continuous series of tactical defeats,” Cordesman says. “That’s what happened in Vietnam.”

Any argument that these attacks represent a lack of strategic purpose or focus are misleading, he warns. “They do. Not only do they have purpose, they have strategic value.”

The NATO coalition may have degraded the insurgency’s combat capabilities over the past 18 months, “and it may have forced them to attack using different tactics and a different strategy,” Exum says.

The problem, he adds, is that this strategy of attacks may ultimately prove “more effective than what they were doing before.”

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