September 13, 2011

With Kabul Under Attack, What Weakening Insurgency?

As details continue to emerge regarding today's assault on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul, analysts are tackling a vexing question: Are Afghanistan's militants really as desperate, weak, and war-weary as Western officials frequently suggest? Earlier this month, Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Washington Post that  "the Taliban foot soldiers are tired of it all, and ready to put their guns down if they can be assured that they can be fully reintegrated," adding that "the biggest problem in Kabul is traffic" (as you might imagine, that line is awash in ridicule on Twitter this morning). In July, Crocker declared that a spate of assassinations in Kandahar might indicate that the Taliban is suffering from "significant organizational weakness" and an inability to "conduct large scale operations." But Kabul especially has recently been the scene of ambitious insurgent strikes, including attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council, as Afghan forces assume formal responsibility for security in the capital.

Freelance journalist Simon Klingert tweets that the "city-wide attack," which was carried out by militants armed with rockets and automatic weapons and included explosions in other parts of the capital, "requires sophisticated insurgent coordination and communication. Failing insurgency likely couldn't pull it off." Klingert also raises questions about the capability of Afghan security forces and calls the war in Afghanistan a "classic asymmetric conflict." The "insurgents simply being able to pull off an attack in the capital of Kabul is a win," he writes. The BBC's Bilal Sarwary notes that Tuesday's attack at the heart of the Afghan government and international mission "has shattered confidence of Afghans. Armed attackers walking undetected to Kabul."  Reuters adds that "violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001, with high levels of foreign troop deaths and record civilian casualties." Still, analyst Andrew Exum cautions against jumping to any conclusions. "This attack alone is not enough to assess the strength or weakness of the insurgent group," he warns. "It's just one act, meant for media consumption."

Western officials meanwhile don't seem to be talking about a weakened insurgency. But they're not sounding alarm bells, either. "We are witnessing that the Taliban try to test [the] transition but they can't stop it," declared NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The "transition is on track and it will continue."