Why the Taliban’s show of strength will continue
The Taliban want to show that Karzai’s regime will be incapable of protecting the Afghan people
KABUL, Wednesday - The Taliban's latest attack on the Afghan capital included a first assault on that most potent symbol of foreign power and influence, the US Embassy.
The most lethal of the day-long sporadic attacks were at police road blocks and a station in the west of the city. It was there that most of the casualties were sustained, six dead – including at least two policemen, and some 19 wounded.
At the US Embassy, four Afghans were injured, none seriously, as they queued for visas. The attack started at 1.30 in the afternoon precisely, with a blast bomb and rocket propelled grenade. It appeared much louder than normal as the sound bounced off the concrete walls surrounding the embassy itself and the Nato international headquarters opposite.
This was followed by bursts of sporadic firing – much of it from the Gurkha security guards protecting the British Embassy compound adjoining the American mission.
This was punctuated by loud thuds from rocket propelled grenades and longer range rockets which the Taliban appear to be resorting to more frequently in their latest attacks. These brought a macabre memory – they sounded exactly like the Sagger rockets the Mujahideen guerrillas used to pepper the city as the Russians withdrew in the snows of February 1989, when I first came to Kabul.
The Taliban are trying to undermine the credibility of any handover of security to the Afghan government at every turn. They want to show that the regime headed by Hamid Karzai's government is simply incapable now of protecting the Afghan people, and when the Nato forces withdraw altogether from their combat mission in 2014 it will be even worse.
This is why the attacks and the shows of strength in Kabul will continue.
Early this year there was the assault on the Intercontinental Hotel, in which seven people died. Last month at least three suicide assault teams attacked the British Council compound on the edge of the commercial district, killing 14, including a member of the New Zealand Special Forces.
The British Council office, now relocated to the UK Embassy complex, was in the firing zone again yesterday as the Gurkhas dodged into the alleys just outside to exchange shots with fleeing gunmen, or, rather, what they thought were fleeing gunmen.
The last of the Taliban fighters was declared dead early this morning. Their victory, if there was one, was the hasty commentary and narrative about these events cobbled in distant capitals like London and Washington – a narrative that chimes with the cultivated scepticism about Afghanistan in Washington and London this summer.
A CIA report has claimed that the security operation headed by first General Stan McChrystal and then General David Petraeus has reached 'stalemate', the implication being that it is better to cut your losses and just quit in Afghanistan. Three generals , including General Allen and General Jim Matthis of Central Command, have recorded officially their dissent with the CIA assessment.
In London, however, the 'stalemate' motif has been embraced in a report for the National Security Council, though it is understood that a key draft was prepared by a member of the intelligence community who has never been to Afghanistan.
Against the hasty and superficial commentary from western capitals, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is altogether more complex, and intriguing.
There is certainly little sense of 'stalemate', as the Taliban now battle on several fronts in what appear at times to be several different wars. The assaults on Kabul and Kandahar go on; in provinces like Wardak they are engaged in rural banditry; and in Helmand they try to put on a display of firepower but now show signs of losing the hearts and minds of their most loyal supporters of just three or four years ago.
"The trouble is that the Taliban just know about killing, and most people realise this now," I was told this week by Zahidi, leader of the journalists' association in Lashkar Gah, "and they don't know how to run anything like health clinics, schools and government. People here hate them, and they don't want the Taliban back."
Further to the east, however, in the border area with Pakistan in provinces like Kunar, the Haqqani Taliban are fighting an all-out mountain guerrilla war with the Americans – and with more than a little help from their Pakistan friends. When they come within range of US forces, the Haqqani fighters are covered by medium range artillery fire from Pakistan Army artillery units.
To talk of 'victory' or 'defeat' is as superficial as talking of 'stalemate'. There is massive dysfunction in the Afghan state, flagged by the Kabul Bank scandal and the breakdown of parliament. The drugs economy is dominant and corruption is rampant. But reform is beginning to get up steam. The biggest question now is that of engaging the neighbours, particularly Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, without whose moral and material succour the present Taliban fighting coalition – including remnants of al-Qaeda – would not exist.
But engagement with neighbours like Pakistan should not mean disengagement from Afghanistan. Yet this is what the 'stalemate' camp led by vice president Joe Biden – not without a political eye to undermining his potential political rival Gen Petraeus, newly installed as CIA chief – seem to want. ·
Comments are now closed on this article