War & Peace

The Enteqal Seven (6): What is left to transition in Kabul


Against the blazing red background of increasingly brazen attacks carried out inside the capital, Kabul province moves towards the imminent transition of security. How this is going to affect the situation in the province, as the city and most of the districts have already been transitioned de facto in 2008-09, is not clear. However, it will possibly put further to test the efficiency of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) at a time when insurgent networks seem to close in, strengthening their networks in the surrounding districts in order to be able to strike inside Kabul. AAN’s analyst Fabrizio Foschini looks at yet another enteqal area.

Smoke was still rising over the ruined house of Jan Muhammad Khan, President Karzai’s virtual godfather and Uruzgan’s foremost strongman, when Gen. David Petraeus accomplished his small personal lot in the frame of transition, transferring command over the US/NATO troops to his successor Gen. John Allen. Sunday night’s attack in Karte Chahar may be considered more or less correctly an away match in a game played in Uruzgan or in the south of the country, but it is first of all another demonstration of the insurgent capacity to strike inside Kabul.

The other recent instance of that capacity and willingness was the attack at the Intercontinental (see our blog here) on 28 June. If the killing of Jan Muhammad Khan, along with that of a score of other important figures countrywide in the last months, may prove significant at a political and military level, attacks like that on the Intercontinental seem to be more important on a psychological one. In the past three to four years, attacks aimed at sensible and relatively soft targets with high visibility have become a constant issue in Kabul.

Notwithstanding a certain degree of unpredictability, residents of Kabul are aware that some kind of major attack intra muros (or better, intra ring of steel) may be expected every three to four weeks. The activities of insurgents do not limit themselves to that, but minor attacks like an improvised explosive device (IED) on the outskirts of the city are not taken into account. The regularity of the attacks is not something altogether established and immutable, depending on an increasingly target-rich environment in concomitance of special events, or on the ability of the ANSF, and the NDS, the National Directorate of Security in particular, to disrupt insurgents network and hinder their ability to strike.

The ‘civilian surge’ which took place in the last years has potentially increased targets for attacks, and foreigners  have often been the focus of insurgents’ violence, but Afghan institutions seem to be even more under fire as of late. The much-feared tactic of the insurgents to act in disguise as Afghan police or army has proven difficult to counter, given the continued availability of uniforms even after the ban on their sale in the market, and the plethora of security forces units crowding every corner of Kabul. This deceit has been used effectively even for criminal purposes inside and near the capital. Even more worrying could prove the phenomenon of insurgent infiltration in the real ANSF, or simply of connivance with them inside the security apparatus. The combination of all three of these instances was responsible for one of the most striking attacks ever carried out against the security institutions in Kabul, when a suicide attacker disguised as an Afghan Army colonel introduced himself into the Ministry of Defence in late April.

However, things could have grown worse, given the apparent multiplication of efforts on part of the insurgents to penetrate the city’s defences, if it were not for the prevention work carried out by the ANSF and ISAF. In front of an increase in the number of policing operations in and around the city and of suspects detained(*), the overall number of insurgent attacks which took place in Kabul province has decreased of one third in the past year, testifying to some pre-emptive ability of the security forces.

Although the presence of permanent Taleban cells inside the city may be limited in comparison with other Afghan centres (at least considering the size of Kabul), the insurgents certainly keep agents in some areas of the city more frequently used to harbour suicide squads and weapons in view of an attack. Apparently, they also lean on criminal networks to act as facilitators. Tarakhel area (and Deh Sabz district beyond it) has long been considered one of the first places for this kind of criminal-insurgent linking, but the urban area of Bagrami district too seems to be employed for attacks on Jalalabad Road. If Taleban could be believed to penetrate and hide more easily in the south of the city, in areas like Shah-e Shahid with their daily influx of migrants from the Pashtun-inhabited and war-affected provinces of Logar and Loya Paktia(**), recent events demonstrate how they are now able to infiltrate different areas of the city.

At the end of June, in fact, a remarkable police search operation took place in Kot-e Sangi, a major roundabout and crowded commercial hub in West Kabul. Notwithstanding the majority Hazara population of the area, the possible presence of a local insurgent network appeared more credible on Tuesday when, 36 hours after Jan Mohammad Khan was killed not far from there, a new police operation with consequent round-up of suspects took place in the same place.

Pessimistically, one could argue that most of the districts surrounding Kabul are in the process or run the risk of being turned into havens for insurgents to regroup and plunge onto the city, in pursuance of either their old tactic of attacks on soft targets involving foreigners, or of what seems to be a new strategy of assassinating prominent politicians.

As the arrest of suspects and the finding of weapon caches demonstrated last autumn, Shakardara, to the north of the city, is possibly important as a supply line and safe haven for insurgents due to its proximity, even if the environment is not considered particularly Taleban-friendly(***).

Most of the Shomali has in fact been traditionally considered Taleban-resilient, with some reason, given the havoc wrecked there by them during the ‘90s. It seems now that they could have been able to effect a discrete comeback, at least in some areas. Violence in the Shomali is however more usually related to infighting among local commanders, many of whom – turned politicians in Kabul – have been able to retain armed influence in their home districts (we could name Guzar in Kalakan, Oryakhel in Qarabagh, Sayyaf in Paghman, with their networks often extending further north into Parwan). Districts like Shakardara, Guldara, Kalakan, Qarabagh or Istalif have in fact a small value as targets for the insurgents, who may prefer to remain quiet and not call attention on their supply lines there.

The situation is different in the districts to the south and east of the city. There, insurgents often target Afghan and international forces with IEDs, if not in armed confrontations, and their presence is more felt by the population. Insurgents overlap from neighbouring Wardak (into Paghman) and Logar (into Charasiab, Musayi and Khak-e Jabbar) not in small commando units trying to sneak into the city but in rather more substantial groups. Their activities included the bombing of district centres (Musayi), the targeting of government employees and the kidnapping of NGO workers – although promptly released (Charasiab).

What will the transition of security, scheduled to happen next week, entail then? The enteqal will be hardly perceivable inside the city, the residual role of foreign troops in Kabul being that of supporting ANSF in case of protracted resistance on part of insurgent commandos entrenched somewhere, and this is something that can always be done by small quick reaction units, enteqal or not(****). In the districts, on the other hand, the change could be felt more. Notwithstanding the fact that a transition from the French ISAF to the ANSF took place in all except one of Kabul districts between summer of 2008 and April 2009, foreign troops’ occasionally still lend a hand to their Afghan counterparts. Joint-patrols, search operations, and in particular raids and night raids carried out (especially in Musayi and Charasiab), although in Kabul province they are apparently under an overall Afghan lead, still involve a strong participation of ISAF troops. This could have ensured till now their efficiency – the military would argue – but represents, at the same time, a major cause of resentment and hostility by locals. The future performance of the ANSF in carrying out these duties on its own is likely to affect significantly the security of the capital.

Until now we carefully avoided mentioning Sarobi. The district in fact is the only specific exception to the programmed enteqal, being a major conflict area and insurgent stronghold. Last autumn, shortly before the Lisbon conference which green-lighted the enteqal process, the French commander in chief had vented the idea of a transition of Sarobi to the ANSF in springtime. With the increased insecurity on the Kabul-Jalalabad section of Highway One – the main hotspot for attacks is indeed Tang-e Abrisham in Sarobi – such wild ideas were of course abandoned.

However, in concomitance with his visit last week, president Sarkozy released France’s timetable for withdrawal, stating that from now until the end of next year it entails the reduction of one quarter of its contingent – that means around one thousand troops – while the remaining French troops will eventually leave before 2014. But with the mounting pressure on the strategic road axis in Sarobi and the rest of the French ISAF bogged down in Kapisa conflict, this also sounds a somewhat risqué prediction.

 

(*) Operations like that which brought to the arrest of a Taleban commander in Chehel Sotun area of Kabul last October must not make one forget that the ANP is still hampered by a lack of professionalism and a tendency to act as a military unit instead of an investigative one. Excluding an EUPOL pilot project to form qualified policemen in District Three, the training ANP received has focused mainly on military drills, and most of its effectives are there as part of old militia networks often under the orders of their former commanders, some of whom were even widely suspected of ties with criminal networks, like those involved in the ‘kidnapping industry’. Since last October Kabul province’s police is once again headed by former Shura-e Nezar Ayub Salangi, first in charge for most of 2008.

(**) The area also features a couple of mosques whose preachers were sometimes accused of delivering sermons sympathetic to the insurgents. The ones in Qalacha and Bini Hissar have been more than once raided by security forces and arrests have been made there, but even in the central Pul-e Khishti mosque one can occasionally listen to fiery speeches against the foreign troops.

(***) Shakardara, however, has been home to Anwar Dangar, who after having been allied to Jamiat-e Islami eventually became the most important Taleban commander of the whole Kabul region and was instrumental in an attempt on Ahmad Shah Massud’s life in year 2000, ending his days violently in Pakistan around 2004.

(****) As of now, apart from two Turkish motorized battalions deployed at Camp Dogan and Camp Gazi (sic), Kabul hosts every description of ISAF commands (Special Operations, Rapid Reaction Force, etc.) of course, and several US task forces (Anti-IED, Detention, Training). Finally, there are a couple of task forces deployed at Kabul military airport (US, French).

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