US ambassador to Afghanistan downplays Kabul attack as security doubts grow

Although Ambassador Crocker downplayed Tuesday's Kabul attack as 'not a very big deal,' they may have undermined US and Afghan assertions that Kabul's security situation is stable.

Rafiq Maqbool/AP
Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Afghanistan speaks during an interview at a US embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 14. The US ambassador to Afghanistan says the Pakistani-based Haqqani network is behind the coordinated attack against the American Embassy and NATO headquarters in the heart of Kabul.

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Afghan police brought a 20-hour insurgent attack in Kabul to an end Wednesday morning. Soon after, the US ambassador to Afghanistan downplayed the attack as "not a very big deal."

But the Kabul attack, which targeted the US Embassy and NATO compounds in the city, raises concern about the stability as the US-led military coalition in Afghanistan prepares to hand over responsibilities to Afghan security forces. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the attack will not change those plans, which are critical to the coalition's exit strategy, according to the Associated Press.

According to Agence France-Presse, 14 people were killed throughout the city in the attack. At least six rocket-propelled grenades landed in the embassy compound, although there were only a few injuries. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but Mr. Crocker said he believed that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network was behind it.

Crocker also said he thought the nature of the attack showed a lack of strength among insurgents and paid tribute to the response of the Afghan security forces.

"If that's the best they can do, you know, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness and more importantly, since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security, it's a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces," he said.

The attack was complex enough to include multiple targets throughout the city. The fact that several insurgents made it into the most fortified part of the city implies that the militants may have help from someone inside the Afghan security forces, AP reports.

The attack did not result in many deaths, but it hurt US efforts to portray Kabul as secure, Dan Murphy writes for The Christian Science Monitor. Last week, Crocker told the Washington Post that Kabul's biggest concern was "traffic."

But the point of such attacks is symbolic, 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 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.

In an article for Foreign Policy titled "Losing the War of Perception," Simon Klingert writes that this attack, coupled with the high-profile attacks this summer on the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council, is a major victory for insurgents.

But the impact such high-profile attacks have on the perceptions of the Afghan public is devastating. The ability of the Taliban insurgents to penetrate the capital's strongholds severely undermines the trust and confidence of Afghan citizens in their security forces to protect them. Perception is key here, and the insurgents know this well.

Today's attack is specifically designed to garner as much media attention as possible, as were the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council raids. The aim is to project the image of a strong, resilient insurgent force that can strike – whenever it wants – at the heart of those who are charged to safeguard the city and its population. As helicopters circled overhead and the reverberations of explosions and gunfire rippled though Kabul, the message was received loud and clear.

Klingert rejected Crocker's assertion that the attack signaled the insurgents' desperation. Multiple, simultaneous attacks throughout Kabul take serious coordination and cooperation and significant intelligence – something a "desperate" insurgency would not have, he writes.

The attack did give the Afghan public a chance to see the results of Afghan security forces taking the lead, he said. But while they were able to lead the response to the attacks, "critical support and logistics" were still clearly lacking, he writes.

An ISAF Apache attack helicopter was needed to end the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in June, and the ISAF support that the Afghan police and army received today in quelling the [20-hour] siege certainly does not instill confidence that they are ready to go it alone. Insurgents are likely to continue targeting Afghan security infrastructure in Kabul and elsewhere, but it's the legitimacy of the government that bears the real blow. Even with Western support, it will ultimately be up to the Afghan army and police to prove they are legitimate and capable in the eyes of the people they are supposed to protect.

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