September 13, 2011

What We Still Don't Know About the Kabul Attacks

Tuesday, Sept. 13's dramatic attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds in Kabul is sure to garner many headlines and will sow doubts about the ability of the Afghan national security forces -- which have responsibility for Kabul and its environs -- to manage their country's security after U.S. and allied troops carry out their planned withdrawal between now and 2014.

Those doubts are already leaping to the surface. "The Kabul attack," claims a headline in the Guardian, "shows the insurgency is as potent as ever" -- to take just one example. But we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions just yet about what the attack does or does not mean.

For one thing, we have no idea yet as to which of Afghanistan's insurgent groups executed the attack. Americans often lump Afghanistan's insurgent groups into one group and label them the "Taliban," but in truth Afghanistan is home to several insurgent actors, including the Haqqani network, the Quetta Shura Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin, and various local networks. We must first determine which actor perpetrated the attack before concluding whether this particular assault marks a shift in insurgent tactics and strategy.

This is particularly important because in the aftermath of the attack, U.S. and allied spin doctors might attempt to claim the attack represents the desperation of the insurgent groups after their reversals on the ground in southern and eastern Afghanistan. This might, in fact, be true. The opposite conclusion, though -- that Afghanistan's insurgent groups are gaining in strength and organization relative to the government and NATO forces -- might also be true.

Second, we do not yet know much about the capabilities, organization, or leadership of the small group that carried out the attack. Initial reports said the militants were part of the Haqqani network, but over the next few days, we will learn more about their skill with their weapons, their cohesiveness, and their coordination. These details should tell us more about whether this attack represents a step up in skill and sophistication from earlier attacks or whether this attack reflects the usual failings of insurgents in Afghanistan -- especially with respect to skill and training in the use of their weapons. A video of NATO soldiers calmly and effectively responding to the attack suggests the insurgents were mightily overmatched by their opponents.

One conclusion we can draw with relative confidence, though, is that the goal of this attack was more psychological than physical. The attack on the U.S. Embassy, it should be said, did not harm a single member of the hundreds of Americans who work there and wounded only four Afghans -- none of whose lives are threatened. But the informational effects of this attack trump any material damage that did or did not occur. A bold, coordinated assault on such a high-profile U.S. target in the center of Kabul was meant to send a message to both Afghans and Westerners alike and was meant to be amplified by the many and varied media organizations based in Kabul. Most Western media bureaus, in fact, are located just a few minutes' walk or drive from the U.S. Embassy. (The BBC's reporters, for instance, were dramatically dressed in flak jackets during the attack -- unintentionally amplifying the assailants' bid to portray the image of a city under siege.)

A second conclusion we can draw concerns the performance of the Afghan security forces. This is not the first attack on Kabul of late, and in previous incidents, the performance of the Afghan security forces has been uneven. To what degree, during this attack, was the response led by Afghans as opposed to their NATO mentors? With what degree of skill did the Afghan security forces use their own weapons, and how did they shoot, move, and communicate in the face of the insurgents? And after several years of calm in Kabul, does Tuesday's attack signal a degradation of the Afghan intelligence networks that have thwarted earlier attacks on the capital?

These are crucial questions because the ongoing transition in Afghanistan rests on the assumption that the country's security forces and intelligence services will be prepared to take responsibility for those areas that are transferred. If the Afghan security forces and intelligence services can safeguard their own capital city -- which local police officials have previously boasted is guarded by a "ring of steel" -- that is reason for encouragement. If they cannot, that is reason for despair.

Andrew Exum is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. A former U.S. Army officer who served in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, Exum has also served as a civilian advisor in Afghanistan to Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus.