It is not easy to strike the right balance when discussing yesterday’s attacks by the Taleban in Kabul and three provinces. The international media, particularly those without correspondents on the ground, have talked up the intensity and relevance of the attacks in eye-catching headlines, referring to them as a ‘Taleban offensive’, ‘attack on the diplomatic quarter’, ‘battle in the streets of Kabul’ or the ‘largest attack in 11 years.’(1) And although you can stretch yesterday’s events to make them fit, these descriptions invoke images that really don’t capture the flavour of what was going on.
NATO and US communications, on the other hand, sought to downplay the events, dismissing them as ‘largely ineffective’ and ‘irrelevant’ and emphasising that the attackers failed to inflict mass casualties or damage. But that doesn’t fit either. It doesn’t reflect the skill that was involved in terms of planning and execution. It doesn’t do justice to the way the attacks pushed aside everything else for almost 24 hours and kept ISAF, the security forces, the Afghan government and Kabul’s population preoccupied for most of the day and night. And it disregards the fact that the importance of what the attackers managed to pull off does not lie in its tactical impact or the damage it inflicted (or didn’t inflict): it was meant mainly as a strike in the war of perceptions and narratives. And when it comes to the initial stories in the media the Taleban did well.
The ‘spring offensive’/’battle in the street’/’largest attack’ narrative that was told in much of the international media invoked images of waves of attackers assaulting embassies and government buildings. But there were no attackers roaming the streets of Kabul and there was never a question how this would end (although it was unclear how many casualties there would be and how long the standoffs would last). These were small groups of heavily armed men who had occupied empty high-rise buildings from where they could shoot at high-profile targets. The locations were well-chosen, which meant that the attackers didn’t actually need to hit anything for the headlines to do their work. It has become a well-established type of attack, which the Taleban is perfecting and it reflects a keen understanding of how the media works and how to suggest more mayhem than actually caused.(2)
The timing was also well-chosen, at the beginning of the fighting season and the (rather tired idea of the) ‘spring offensive’, the importance of which has been inflated for several years now by both sides: after the winter lull the Taleban tend to announce the launch of a new offensive after which they claim each (often exaggerated) attack as proof of their strength. ISAF then, in turn, talk up the importance of such an offensive and point to the absence of significant Taleban battlefield gains as proof of their decline – except this year the Taleban announced the start of its so-called spring offensive with a rather loud bang.(3)
The Taleban managed to launch simultaneous attacks in three provinces – Nangarhar, Paktia and Logar with the latter continuing well into the next day – and three locations in Kabul: Zambaq crossroads, which is in Shahr-e Naw and borders Wazir Akbar Khan where many embassies and international organisations have their offices, as well as being relatively near the large presidential compound; Daruluman Road close to the Parliament; and Jalalabad Road near ISAF’s Camp Warehouse. The fact that they managed to pull this off, without leaks or detection, reflects a high level of discipline and sophisticated planning, and shows that among the insurgent networks there is now a core that can operate without much chatter or amateurishness.
The failure to prevent or to even see this coming was an intelligence-gathering failure (4), although it is admittedly very difficult to fully prevent attacks like this, in such a big bustling city. It also showed a certain level of arrogance and underestimation of Taleban capabilities, particularly on the part of ISAF, as illustrated by the spokesman’s insistence, less than a week ago, that they had seen ‘no sign of a [Taleban] spring offensive’.
But not all went well for the Taleban, either. Although they managed to pull off a series of attacks that looked spectacular, particularly from a distance, and that kept get Kabul’s population on their toes during the day and awake for most of the night, I can’t escape the impression that, by and large, Afghans in Kabul were not as impressed as the international media. They also seemed less impressed than the attackers would have hoped. People expressed exasperation that the authorities had not been able to stop the assaults from happening (many were particularly irked by the fact that empty buildings that can be used as launching pads are not being more effectively monitored, despite similar earlier attacks), but there also seemed to be a general sense that the Afghan security forces had responded well and that they had been up to the task.
The performance of the security forces is currently being talked up by ISAF and the US, who have to be very careful not to undermine their success by praising them too loudly or in an exaggerated manner (for instance by pretending that this was a fully Afghan-led and Afghan-conducted operation and that this proves that they can operate independently). But there does seem to be an appetite for heroes and silver linings among the population of Kabul, and for some people the Afghan Special Forces played that role.
It is unclear whether the relatively low number of casualties was intentional, whether it was considered irrelevant by the attackers, or whether it was largely a result of the method of the attack (where once the attackers have been detected, it becomes very difficult for them to take careful aim at the various targets, as they become preoccupied with defending their positions and fending off the security forces). But it did help that the security forces and ISAF proceeded with caution – even though this resulted in very drawn-out stand-offs.
Finally, it seems unlikely that the attacks will have a great impact on the possibility – or impossibility – of further talks. The insurgency, like the international military, seems to be following parallel tracks of both fighting and (exploring the possibility of) talking at the same time. Although the process of talking about talks, which was halting and very preliminary to start with, seems to have stalled for the moment, high-profile attacks like this do not necessary preclude its resumption, whether serious or tactical (nor will a resumption of talks preclude the possibility of more spectacular or high-profile attacks). Whatever happens, the existence of seemingly contradictory processes will probably continue, illustrating both the differences of opinion within the movement, as well as the pressures on the insurgency’s leadership to prove, not only to the world, but also to itself and its own fighters, that it remains a force to be reckoned with.
(1) For details on the attacks and examples of some of the reporting seehere, here and here. For pictures check the tumblr page by Razistan, an new outlet for in-depth photo-stories on Afghanistan (currently fundraising).
(2) Attempts at ‘strategic communications’ by Taleban spokesmen during and after the attack, however, did not reflect the same understanding of how the media works. Messages claiming large numbers of casualties or for instance suggesting that the Presidential Palace was under siege were implausible enough to be ignored by the media (and rightly so).
(3) Afghan authorities and international spokespersons have suggested that the attacks were done by the Haqqani network – a claim that follows every complex and sophisticated attack. The attacks were however claimed by the Taleban. Moreover the Haqqani group, by its own insistence, is still part of the wider Taleban movement. It is however clear that there is a core within the movement that can pull off operations in a markedly more sophisticated, disciplined and often deadly manner.
(4) When the Palace finally released a statement by the President responding to the attacks – eight full hours after the last attacker was killed – it praised the rapid response of the Afghan security forces and singled out the intelligence failure, by the NDS but in particular by NATO. This will serve to strengthen the government’s narrative that all will be better once the Afghans are in control.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020