Losing the War of Perception

Tuesday's massive coordinated attacks in Kabul show that Afghan security has a long way to go. And Afghan civilians are right to be worried.

It was only last week that U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said "traffic" was the biggest problem Kabul faces. One wonders whether he was rethinking this assessment as he hunkered down in a bunker at his embassy today.

This Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 13, insurgents mounted the most comprehensive assault on the Afghan capital so far this year, simultaneously striking several key Afghan and international security facilities and installations. The complex, city-wide attack cast fresh doubts on the ability of Afghan forces to take charge of security as NATO troops are slated to start their withdrawal from the troubled country.

The main attack focused on an area near the heavily fortified and well guarded embassy district, where insurgents took over a building under construction, firing small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and recoilless rifle rounds at the U.S. embassy complex and at the nearby International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters, causing no casualties. The building of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security, was also attacked. Meanwhile, two suicide bombers struck in the western part of Kabul: One killed a policeman as he detonated his explosives at the entrance of a police station; the other hurt two civilians outside of Habibia High School, among whose graduates is Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Several rockets landed in the downtown district of Wazir Akbar Khan, and Afghan police killed another suicide bomber on the road leading to Kabul International Airport. Reuters reports at least nine people were killed and 23 wounded.

Kabul has seen an upsurge of violence this year as a string of high-profile attacks has killed dozens of Afghans, most of them civilians. The shocking attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council, in June and August respectively, killed more than 20 people -- and shattered the collective sense of security in the capital. The attacks have sent the Afghan government and ISAF scrambling to reassure a skeptical and war-weary public that the transition of security responsibility from international to local forces is going well and according to plan. But as Tuesday's fighting echoed though Kabul, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Brussels denounced the notion the insurgent attack was a success and vowed to push ahead with the security transition, essentially confirming that the new rash of security breaches will not have a measurable impact on the timeline of the transition, which is supposed to be completed by the end of 2014.

But the impact such high-profile attacks have on the perceptions of the Afghan public is devastating. The ability of the Taliban insurgents to penetrate the capital's strongholds severely undermines the trust and confidence of Afghan citizens in their security forces to protect them. Perception is key here, and the insurgents know this well.

Today's attack is specifically designed to garner as much media attention as possible, as were the Intercontinental Hotel and the British Council raids. The aim is to project the image of a strong, resilient insurgent force that can strike -- whenever it wants -- at the heart of those who are charged to safeguard the city and its population. As helicopters circled overhead and the reverberations of explosions and gunfire rippled though Kabul, the message was received loud and clear.  

One key advantage the insurgents continue to enjoy is the asymmetry of the conflict. They do not have to strike with superior numbers or bring more firepower to bear; the simple fact that they are able to breach hard targets such as military and diplomatic command centers is a mission accomplished. The number of casualties they cause or the fact that most of the insurgents will most likely die during the process is of secondary concern. The message and the influence it has on the population is primary.

The oft-repeated notion that these are the actions of an insurgency in its death throes and are a sign of desperation is dangerously misleading and wrong. Multi-pronged attacks across Kabul or any other Afghan city require a certain level of coordination and cooperation among insurgent networks, as well as functioning intelligence and logistics programs. And an insurgency on the verge of defeat isn't likely to muster any of those capacities, especially if one believes the analysis that the Taliban is in retreat.

But what about the response? The manner in which Afghan security forces handle situations like Tuesday's attack is a telling indicator of their own capacities, and it provides a realistic progress report on the viability of a future without ISAF support. While Afghan officials and the ISAF continued to point out that Afghan forces were taking the lead in responding to the latest attacks, critical logistics and other support is still needed, a fact that is not lost on the Afghan public. An ISAF Apache attack helicopter was needed to end the siege of the Intercontinental Hotel in June, and the ISAF support that the Afghan police and army received today in quelling the 10-hour siege certainly does not instill confidence that they are ready to go it alone. Insurgents are likely to continue targeting Afghan security infrastructure in Kabul and elsewhere, but it's the legitimacy of the government that bears the real blow. Even with Western support, it will ultimately be up to the Afghan army and police to prove they are legitimate and capable in the eyes of the people they are supposed to protect. And today's attacks are doing Karzai no favors.

Enayat Asadi/Getty Images


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.