Monday, April 16, 2012

Rule #1 of reading about Afghanistan: Take the claims of a military spokesperson with a large grain of salt

Last week NATO spokesman German Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson boasted that the Taliban's spring offensive wouldn't be much of an offensive due to the military gains made by NATO forces over the last year.


Jacobson may have spoken too soon. This weekend the Taliban began its spring offensive in earnest in Kabul, conducting a series on coordinated attacks on various Western embassies, NATO headquarters, and the Afghan Parliament, which lasted for 18 hours. Afghan security forces were able to prevent an assassination plot targeting Hamid Karzai by detaining the four would-be suicide bomber en route to paradise. There were also simultaneous attacks in other parts of the country. On the other side of the border, the Pakistani Taliban stormed a prison liberating nearly 400 inmatesThis weekend's come on the heels of twin suicide attacks on Thursday that targeted Afghan government facilities in the capital.

General Jacobson predicted that the recent military gains -- including the "beefing up" of Afghan forces who, by most reports, are in need of a lot of beef -- would prevent the Taliban from using previously effective tactics. But Sunday's attacks seem to suggest that the opposite may be true:
Afghan security forces apparently failed to learn lessons from a similar operation in Kabul last September, when insurgents entered construction sites to use them as positions for rocket and gun attacks. 
On Sunday, insurgents entered a multi-storey construction site overlooking the diplomatic triangle and behind a supermarket. There they unleashed rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire, protected from the view of security forces by green protective netting wrapped around the skeleton of the building.

As the article notes, this operation was pretty much a rerun of last September's attack on Kabul by the Haqqani Network, who were likely responsible for this weekend's violence. According to the LA Times:

Three of the attacks in Kabul were mounted from high-rise construction sites, affording fighters a superior vantage point and cover behind green protective netting. This suggests that Afghan security forces didn't take sufficient notice of a similar operation in Kabul last September that saw unoccupied buildings used for rocket attacks on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters. 
The tactic underscored the insurgents' flexibility, some experts said. 
"The Taliban is constantly developing new methods of attack," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. "If they succeed, they may continue to use them, otherwise they move on."
UPDATE: The attacks appear to have been a response -- at least in part -- to the boastful claims of General Jacobson and other NATO officials. According to the New York Times:
One Taliban spokesman described the onslaught as the opening of the Taliban’s spring offensive. “This is a message to those foreign commanders who claim that the Taliban lost momentum,” said Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman. “We just showed that we are here and we will launch and stage attacks whenever we want.”
Some NATO officials are, of course, downplaying this weekend's violence:
“This does have all the hallmarks of Haqqani on it,” said Col. Daniel J. W. King, spokesman for NATO. “It’s been over 150 days since the Haqqanis launched a successful attack on Kabul, they have to do this if they are going to have any credibility.” He added, “If this is the best they can do to start their fighting season, then obviously the Afghan security forces and others are having a significant impact.”
General John R. Allen, however, was a bit more candid, saying, “No one is underestimating the seriousness of today’s attacks.”
UPDATE #2: US Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker tried to further downplay the attacks, saying “The Taliban are really good at issuing statements. Less good at actually fighting.” The Ambassador seems to miss the point of the attacks entirely: the insurgents were seeking a symbolic rather than a military victory. By demonstrating that they can mount large-scale operations -- operations for which there is no escape for the insurgents involved -- the Haqqani Network likely wanted to show both their capacity to strike in the capital -- belying NATO narrative of gains and progress -- and the commitment of their militants. Know thy enemy, Ambassador.

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