The militants who waged weekend attacks on the Afghan capital, Kabul, and three other cities wielded small arms and rocket-propelled grenades to fire what may have been primarily political ammunition.
The assault, which U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said yesterday was organized by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, kept Afghan security forces at bay for more than 17 hours and required NATO helicopters to end the standoff. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called it an “intelligence failure for us and especially NATO.”
Other officials cautioned that it is premature to conclude that the Haqqani group was responsible, noting that the Taliban announced the attacks almost as soon as they began. A finding that Haqqani was behind the attacks could further complicate troubled U.S.-Pakistani relations because U.S. intelligence officials think the group has links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate and has been largely shielded from American drone attacks.
The insurgents’ aim wasn’t to take and hold territory; it was to erode both confidence in Karzai’s government and already waning U.S. and European public and political support for the Afghan war, said U.S. and European military experts and officials.
The attacks signal to Afghan citizens that, when the U.S. and its allies exit as planned at the end of 2014, the Taliban will be back, said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
‘Sitting On the Fence’
“That makes the NATO job harder today, keeps the local population sitting on the fence and indicates that all the progress we have achieved in Afghanistan risks coming undone if we stick to politically driven time lines,” Volker said in an e-mail.
The purpose of this attack “may well have been for the insurgents to remind the U.S., NATO, the Afghans and, indeed, their own supporters that they’re still in business,” said former British Army Brigadier Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Just as NATO has been pursuing a strategy of fight and negotiate, it may be that the insurgents are doing the same thing.”
Afghan forces and NATO troops killed 36 guerrillas to end the wave of attacks yesterday that struck Kabul and three provincial capitals in eastern Afghanistan starting the previous day.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attacks and urged stronger security measures.
“We need to strengthen the capacity of counter-terrorism efforts and of Afghan national security,” Ban said yesterday in Brussels. “These issues will be discussed in detail at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago in May.”
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon after the Kabul assault was over, Panetta sought to downplay the attacks’ significance.
“There were no tactical gains here,” Panetta said. “These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory.”
The counterattack “was very much an Afghan show,” with the U.S. and France providing helicopter support, said U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking alongside Panetta.
“What does it mean? It means we’re still in a fight,” Dempsey said. “We’ve been talking quite openly about the fact that we’ve got three more fighting seasons” in which to build the Afghan security forces and “diminish the capability” of the Taliban, he said, referring to the plan for removing most coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
The American public and members of Congress are increasingly less inclined to provide that much time, though.
Public support in the U.S. fell to an all-time low of 30 percent saying the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. Among Republican respondents, 55 percent said it hasn’t been worth the costs, the first time a majority of Republicans gave that response. The poll was taken April 5-8, and the full sample had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Congressional supporters of the Afghan war are concerned that more high-profile attacks that catch the American public’s attention will further weaken support, according to a House Republican aide and a congressional staffer, both of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Patience is Eroding
Combined with periodic criticism of the U.S. by Karzai and U.S. agreements with him that seem to trade away American military tools, such as night raids by special operations forces, patience in Congress already has eroded considerably, the congressional staffer said.
The trend highlights the need for President Barack Obama to articulate a road map for progress and success in Afghanistan as Congress starts debating funding and war policy for the next fiscal year, the House Republican aide said.
Such attacks are staged “for what we might call psychological operations,” said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who goes to Afghanistan regularly for research and has advised the U.S. military.
“If you look at the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, it’s definitely a mixed picture,” Jones said, adding that he has seen coalition and Afghan forces intercept attempted Taliban attacks.
Still, the Taliban continue to control territory in the east, the west and the north of Afghanistan and even parts of the south, Jones said.
Testing the Afghans
This year’s fighting season will test the Afghan army and police, said retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane, a member of the advisory Defense Policy Board. The exit of 23,000 U.S. troops this year will remove 40 percent of the force from Kandahar province in the country’s south and two-thirds of the American Marines in neighboring Helmand province, he said.
“We’re turning military operations over to the Afghans with U.S. and NATO in a support role,” Keane said in an interview yesterday. “We will find out if the Afghans can handle it.”
Kabul probably will recover quickly from the latest spate of attacks, Keane said. “We do not have 100,000-plus forces in Afghanistan” to control episodic attacks in Kabul,” he said.
The more urgent and long-term threat is the havens across the border in Pakistan where militants hole up, Keane said.
The sanctuaries in Pakistan are “the most serious threat to the future security of Afghanistan,” Keane said.
“We should begin to target them much as we do al-Qaeda,” he said. “We cannot leave those sanctuaries with the kind of vibrancy they currently have when we pull most of our forces out by 2014. That puts Afghanistan at much too much risk.”
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