As Western forces begin to withdraw from Afghanistan after an exhausting decade-long war, an intricate attack by insurgents in the heart of Kabul Tuesday has thrown new doubts on the ability of Afghan security forces to take their place.
The Taliban's attack on the heavily fortified U.S. embassy was meant to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. It claimed the lives of at least seven Afghans – including four policemen – but failed to kill any embassy staff.
It succeeded, however, on a number of other symbolic fronts, calling into question the Western drawdown that would see Afghan security forces assume formal responsibility for security in Kabul in less than two months and for the whole country in 2014.
"The attacks cannot stop the process of transition from taking place and cannot affect it, but rather will embolden our people's determination in taking the responsibility for their country's own affairs," insisted Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
The group of burka-clad insurgents in suicide vests that infiltrated the capital on Tuesday made that prospect seem absurd.
Driving their minivan through Kabul's "ring of steel," a security cordon that encircles the city, they held the city under siege for five hours, raining rocket-propelled grenades on the embassy compound from a nine-storey building nearby.
They sent hundreds of embassy staff scrambling to their bunkers and forced dozens of Afghan government office to be evacuated. Although Afghan forces managed to end the assault (with NATO providing surveillance support) late in the night, Taliban spokesmen text-messaged journalists throughout the ordeal to proclaim the attack a resounding success. Watching the event unfold, many analysts agreed.
"The takeaway is that Afghanistan appeared to be vulnerable in a new way. The violence appears to be intensifying and that in itself is a victory for the Taliban," said Yonah Alexander, a specialist in counterterrorism at the Potomac Institute.
The degree to which the Afghan government and security force can defend itself has become a key criteria for judging NATO success.
Tuesday's attack was the latest in a string of similar, spectacular assaults: In August, militants killed eight people in an attack on a British cultural centre. In June, nine suicide bombers attacked the Intercontinental Hotel. Those, coupled with the recent assassinations of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, suggest overall security is deteriorating.
Tuesday's attack on the U.S. embassy was the most direct assault it has experienced since it opened nine years ago.
However, a report on Afghan security and U.S. policy prepared last month by the Congressional Research Service suggests the overall security picture across the country is more nuanced and complicated.
It's difficult to compare the level of violence now with that of 2001, the report suggests, because the criteria for comparison have changed so dramatically over 10 years:
- For example, the number of insurgents operating in Afghanistan (based on U.S. assessments) has reached 25,000, up from just a few thousand in 2003. However, while the number of insurgents has grown, their ability to attack has not increased proportionally.
- Early on in the war, military commanders worried most about the insurgents’ use of improvised explosive devices. While IEDs remain the Taliban’s weapon of choice, commanders claim to have made huge progress in finding them before they explode.
- Meanwhile, the insurgents have changed tactics: Since 2006, they have used large-scale suicide attacks and roadside bombs, strategies employed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. More recently, insurgents have infiltrated the Afghan security forces and have impersonated them.
- According to a United Nations report issued last year, there was a 66-per-cent increase in security incidents in the fall of 2010 compared with the same period the previous year.
- A July UN report said that civilian deaths increased 15 per cent in the preceding six months compared with the same period in 2010. More than 80 per cent of those were caused by insurgent attacks.
- Also, while Afghan security forces are growing – adding 70,000 personnel since mid-2009 – and are assuming more responsibility for security, commanders tend to attribute progress to American tactics, including tripling the number of U.S. special operations since 2009 to a peak of roughly 2,000 in the past six months.
- Over all, security in the country is patchy. Signs of normalcy, like street markets, have returned to restive provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand. However, insurgents are staging particularly deadly attacks in typically peaceful cities, such as Herat, among the first group to fall under total Afghan security control. The recent upsurge of attacks in Kabul is similarly dramatic.
Christian Leuprecht, a fellow at the Queen's Centre for International and Defence Policy said Tuesday's attack on Kabul's embassy zone "fits the pattern of what we've been seeing" from Taliban insurgents.
He interpreted the strike as a sign of frustration from the Taliban that they are not being taken seriously as a political force.
Last month, Mullah Omar, the Taliban's spiritual leader, hinted at compromise with the current Afghan government – not ruling out negotiations with the Americans or possible power-sharing with Mr. Karzai's government – in a message timed to the Muslim holiday of Eid.
"These types of attacks are the only way for the Taliban right now to jockey for political power," Dr. Leuprecht said.
In Brussels, NATO vowed the attack would not deter Western forces from proceeding with the "transition," handing over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
"Transition is on track, and it will continue," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.