April 28, 2008

The Latest Attack in Kabul

Yesterday's ambush on dignitaries at the large, well-planned parade marking the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan was just the latest move in the evolution of the Taliban's strategy.

The Taliban continue to lack much support in the cities. Cities in Afghanistan are, after all, less tribal, more nationalistic, and easier to control than the rural countryside. We are unlikely to see at any time during this war the violence and militia strongholds within the cities that are characteristic of fighting in Iraq. (That said, Abdul Haq ran a very efficient operation against the Soviets in Kabul during the jihad)

So why the attacks in the cities? This is a change in the campaign plan for the Taliban. After all, it is removing assets and personnel from their base of support in the countryside. Much like the large formation attacks on British and Canadian troops in 2006 that resulted in hundreds if not thousands of Taliban dead but almost broke the back of British and Canadian will at the homefront (and succeeded in ensuring that few other countries would deploy their forces to the South), this is again a matter of propaganda of the deed.

The Taliban realize that attacks in the countryside may increase their sphere of control by cutting off lines of communication and implementing Taliban-led government in their districts. However, as they approach the ring road, areas patrolled by Afghan and ISAF ground forces, ISAF air coverage, and major population centers generally supportive of the government, this becomes harder to do. These are also the places where media can be found, so the Taliban were faced with a conundrum--how to influence the will of the Afghan people as well as the will of the peoples of the ISAF Alliance when they could not get coverage of their cause and their acts.

Spectacular suicide bombings in Baghlan and Kandahar since November caused widespread consternation at the inability of the government to prevent attacks. They also seriously decreased perceptions of security in the relatively quiet North of Afghanistan. The brazen Taliban attacks first on the Serena Hotel and now on the parade mark an attempt by the Taliban to press a narrative that their control is expanding and the government's and ISAF's decreasing, even as facts on the ground place them essentially in the same places they were a year ago. Moreover, widespread rumormongering after the attacks of some government officials being complacent in the attacks has not helped the government's position in the eyes of its people.

In the countryside, the Taliban have attempted to increase their influence and control in Farah Province, exploiting the weakness of a Navy-led PRT in the Province and a basic lack of interest in fighting by the Spanish and Italians out of Herat--perhaps the Marine deployment will be a salve for this. They have also sought in Badghis and Faryab to exploit local conflicts and a general lack of interest by either the Coalition or the government in the past six years to develop some control to the North. Whether they could sustain a long-term presence there in the face of a serious effort to remove them is doubtful as these northwestern provinces pose significant logistical and communications challenges.

These spectacular attacks in the cities will undermine support for the government and the Coalition. The Taliban are now nationally an advanced phase II (Strategic Stalemate) insurgency with an increasingly capable propaganda capability. They face a Coalition and government without a comprehensive strategy (we'll see if ISAF signs on to the recently approved Afghan National Development Strategy after the Paris Conference). The chief of the Coalition, GEN McNeill, has just reminded the country that the international community does not plan to stay by suggesting a name change from "International Security Assistance Force" to "Interim Security Assistance Force." What better way to reinforce the standard Taliban propaganda that the Coalition may have the watches, but the Taliban have all the time.

The Taliban will not defeat the Coalition or the Afghan Army at this point on the battlefield during a fair fight. Nor are they going to try.

Yesterday's attack was just another reminder at how much better they are than us not on the battlefield (the attackers were killed and captured) but in the theater of national will.