Good Reads: Taliban's Kabul attack, looming demise of Al Qaeda... and the euro

Today's top stories include a report that the Taliban attack on Kabul may have been a 'last gasp.' Also; how Al Qaeda is being eclipsed by its affiliates. And is the eurozone on its last leg?

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
A soldier, part of the coalition forces, holds his weapon during a gun battle with Taliban militants in a building in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday, Sept. 14. The 20-hour insurgent attack in the heart of Kabul ended Wednesday morning after a final volley of helicopter gunfire as Afghan police ferreted out and killed the last few assailants who had taken over a half-built downtown building to fire on the nearby US Embassy and NATO compounds.

It wasn’t the Tet Offensive, but yesterday’s sustained rocket attack on Western embassies and the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul has certainly rocked American military planners, who have been preparing to draw down US forces in Afghanistan and to hand over the security role to the Afghanistan Army.

Just as a reminder, the Tet Offensive was a massive wave of attacks by Viet Cong insurgents against US forces and the government of South Vietnam on Jan. 31, 1968, involving 80,000 troops, in coordinated attacks against 100 towns, with pitched battles reaching the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is now called.

Yesterday’s attack in Kabul, by contrast, was thought to have been carried out by the Haqqani wing of the Taliban, and involved just nine insurgents. Those nine Taliban fighters managed to kill 7 people and wound 19 others, and lob a rocket into the US Embassy compound. More important, these fighters waged their post-Sept. 11 extravaganza for some 20 hours, raising questions about Kabul’s ability to defend itself once US and allied forces leave the country by 2014.

Until recently, all the stories coming out of Kabul were about conducting talks with the Taliban. This attack shows the Taliban are not in a talking mood, but rather, as New York Times writers Alissa J. Rubin, Ray Rivera, and Jack Healy wrote in today’s paper, it signals “Taliban resolve to battle Western forces to the hour of their exit.”

Ms. Rubin and company win today’s prize for Best Understatement by a Western Diplomat.

“This doesn’t show reconciliation; it does show determination. If the Taliban can do this with five guys perched in a building and they can alternate it with these vehicle-borne I.E.D.’s” – car bombs – “which they have been doing more of, well then this won’t be the last time.”

In the Monitor, Pentagon correspondent Anna Mulrine writes that US military officials tend to see large-scale attacks like this as a “last gasp” for the Taliban. But she also notes that a few more gasps like this could be effective in weakening trust in the fragile Afghan government, and they show that the Taliban are adapting their battlefield techniques.

“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.”

And what about Al Qaeda? Remember them?

According to Michael G. Vickers, the undersecretary of Defense for intelligence, that boys’ club of radical revolutionaries is a spent force, denuded by US military and intelligence operations, and Al Qaeda’s remnants in Pakistan and Afghanistan could be finished off in “18 to 24 months.”

That is the good news, reports Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller of the Washington Post, quoting Mr. Vickers at a Washington press conference.

The bad news is that Al Qaeda is being eclipsed by its own affiliates in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. Mr. Whitlock and Mr. Miller quote CIA director David Petraeus as saying the Al Qaeda affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula – now engaged in a guerrilla war against the Yemen government – is “the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad.”

But rather than launching spectacular attacks like 9/11, the new Al Qaeda is using small, relatively inexpensive attacks to drain the resources of big rich countries. As Petraeus says, “Al-Qaeda’s efforts to carry out relatively small attacks that would . . . generate fear and create the need for costly security improvements.”

Now, about those rich countries: The Economist, in a series of stories this week about the euro, that troubled common currency used across Europe, writes that efforts to keep the single-currency zone from collapsing are not going well.

Heavy spending by southern European countries such as Italy, Spain, and Greece are pushing those countries toward default. Richer northern European nations are threatening to just let them default, and to expel the failing southern members from the eurozone. Fair enough, but such a move could weaken faith in the future of the eurozone, and bring the whole euro house down upon itself.

As always, the Economist does a great job of making all this number talk understandable. Gold stars to whoever wrote this opening line: “When Russia worries publicly about the financial stability of the European Union, as opposed to the other way around, you know the euro is in real trouble.”

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