A recent history of 'sophisticated' insurgent attacks in Kabul

Today's attacks are insignificant from a tactical perspective, but they are part of a steady increase of assaults – sending a message that the Taliban-led insurgency can reach deep into the capital.

Ahmad Nazar/AP
Dust rises after firing by Taliban militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept. 13. Taliban insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles at the US Embassy, NATO headquarters and other buildings in the heart of the Afghan capital.

The attacks in Kabul today were "sophisticated" (the term used to describe attacks that involve multiple locations and weapons), lasted for hours, and ... are completely insignificant from a tactical perspective.

There were claims of mortars fired at NATO headquarters in Kabul and of rocket-propelled grenades flying over the roof the US Embassy, just across the street in the same secured compound. Some expatriates locked themselves in safe-rooms before Afghan forces, supported by NATO helicopters, brought the situation largely under control. As of this writing, a few attackers appeared to be alive and holed up in a half-completed high rise, but the writing was on the wall for them.

What does any of this mean, a few days after US Ambassador Ryan Crocker told The Washington Post that "The biggest problem in Kabul is traffic?" Clearly not much in isolation. The Afghan government's early reports are that three policemen and perhaps one civilian were killed when insurgents raided a building site near the embassy compound and simultaneously moved on an Afghan Border Police base in a different part of town. A school bus was hit by an RPG, but early reports were that none of the children were killed.

But the point of such attacks is symbolism, sending a message that the Taliban-led insurgency can reach deep into the capital. The more frequently such tactically insignificant attacks can be carried out, the more support the Taliban hope to generate for a narrative of a US-backed government whose control is slipping.

An Associated Press tally of attacks in Kabul this year and last counts nine attacks in 2010 and 11 so far this year, including today's. As best as I can make out, there were seven major attacks in the capital in 2009, and five in 2008.

An attack on central Kabul, as paltry as its results were, is always notable. The trend is one of steady increase – though the numbers are still small, and can reflect a shift in emphasis by insurgent groups as much as they do any major increase in capabilities.

But the terror felt by many today will dominate Afghan and foreign conversations in Kabul for days to come – far more than worries about the city's traffic.

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