A month-and-a half after President Barack Obama unveiled his Afghanistan strategy and approved the surge of an extra 30,000 troops, his special envoy Richard Holbrooke speaking in Delhi on Jan. 18 commented on the spectacular coordinated Taliban assault on Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"It's not surprising that the Taliban do this sort of thing. They're desperate people, they're ruthless. The people who are doing this certainly will not survive the attack. Nor will they succeed."
He went on to say: "We can expect this sort of thing on a regular basis. That is who the Taliban are. They're part of a set of extremist groups operating in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan and they do these sorts of desperate things all the time."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources find little substance in this comment and find that it rather demonstrates the Obama administration's disconnect from the realities of Afghanistan, which bodes ill for next month's critical meeting in London for setting the priorities of the 43-nation coalition Afghanistan and improving its governance. Above all, Holbrooke's assertions explain why the Taliban keeps on gaining the upper hand in its military engagements with NATO.
If "this sort of thing" is not surprising, as Holbrooke maintained, how did the Taliban manage to catch everyone napping with its biggest and most complicated coordinated terror assault on the Afghan capital since 2001? For eighteen hours – and not six as officially claimed – some 10 Taliban suicide killers and gunmen rampaged against nine government locations, including the presidential palace, the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, justice, education and the Afghan central bank.
Was that consistent with Holbrooke's assertion that “they do these sorts of desperate things all the time”?
Taliban proves it can seize and paralyze and capital city
Even the biggest urban terror operation mounted until now by an al Qaeda affiliate, the attack by 10 gunmen on four Mumbai locations in November 2008, was dwarfed by the Kabul outrage. The Taliban showed it had raised its terrorist proficiency to state-of-the-art urban combat and showed itself capable of seizing and paralyzing a capital city and center of government – and not only in Afghanistan.
Holbrooke got it right only when he said: "We can expect this sort of thing on a regular basis."
But he could not flesh out this prediction because of US intelligence deficiencies.
The Afghan insurgents scripted their operation with near-perfect military and political timing.
They struck Kabul as President Hamid Karzai rose in his palace to swear in a group of ministers whom the Afghan parliament refused to endorse. The insurgents made their move to show that they, not Karzai, spoke for the people of Afghanistan.
Accepting that the presidential palace would be too difficult to target headon, the Taliban fighters overran a shopping mall 200 meters away and turned it into an RPG firing position against the palace compound. In the front yard, their fighters meanwhile engaged the guards in hand-to-hand combat as suicide bombers blew themselves up.
Amarullah Saleh, director of Afghanistan's domestic intelligence, the NDS, said "60%" of the attackers were killed before they could blow themselves up. "We did not allow them to spread catastrophe. By sacrificing their lives [the security forces] saved tens of Afghan civilians," Saleh said.
Like most of the communiques issued by the regime, this statement too was largely inaccurate.
Most of the attackers were not suicides
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter-terror sources report that most of the attackers were not suicides but Taliban special forces combatants. In fact, the NDS director had no idea how many fighters took part in the attack, how many were suicides, and how many were eliminated or survived.
Afghan government spokesmen boasted that "quick action by its forces” saved heavy casualties and no more than five lives were lost and 70 people injured. This figure does not cover Afghan National Army and police casualties and is therefore probably much higher.
All that is known is that at the end of the day, shortly before midnight, most of the Taliban force held their fire and melted away into the roughly three-and-a half million inhabitants of the capital.
They are lying low and awaiting instructions for their next operation.
The insurgents were clearly not after a heavy civilian casualty toll in a capital from which they once ruled Afghanistan and which they hope to dominate again; they aimed to destabilize the Karzai regime and destroy its credibility as elected by the will of the people and trusted guardian of national security.
This they achieved.
The despair on people's faces as they passed the fire-blackened shells of government ministries the day after the attack spoke volumes. Traffic was snarled by dozens of new security roadblocks and by panicky motorists jumping out of their cars for fear bombers were round the corner.
In purely military terms, the Taliban operation was undermanned. With a larger contingent, they could have held Kabul in their grip for two or three times the 18 hours of their siege. This did not appear to be their purpose, although the insurgents' tacticians will not doubt calculate the outcome of their attack accordingly.
Key element of Obama's Afghan strategy goes by the board
Many wondered out loud why not a single American or NATO-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) soldier was visible in Kabul during the long day of gunfights and explosions. They also noted that the Taliban refrained from targeting any US or NATO installations or personnel. The Afghan army and security forces were left for the first time to cope with a security emergency unaided.
The US forces' absence from the scene of the fighting was so complete that not even a single US helicopter or surveillance aircraft was to be seen.
Brig. Gen. Éric Tremblay, the ISAF spokesman, said after the event: "This was an Afghan-led operation, rapidly seizing the initiative and rapidly neutralizing a complex and synchronized attack." He stressed that the insurgents were consequently unable to sow the sort of death and mayhem they had clearly intended to with so many suicide bombs.
This account of the episode does not hold water.
The truth is that any American or NATO forces trying to reach the palace, had the Taliban had been able to break down the gates and set it on fire (President Karzai and his cabinet were in fortified rooms, proof against ordinary ammo.), would have had first to clear the main roads which the Taliban held under strafing control.
The absence of any US official military comment on the Taliban's assault indicates that one of the main components of Washington's new Afghan strategy has fallen by the wayside.
An Afghan tiger, a Pakistani rejection
Defense of the country's main cities was a key war objective of the new Afghan strategy just formulated by President Obama and the Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal. After last Monday, they must realize that until the extra 30,000 surge troops arrive in the spring, they cannot hope to guarantee control of the Afghan capital, least of all the embattled eastern and southern provinces.
If in Afghanistan, Washington found it had a tiger by the tail, in neighboring Pakistan, defense secretary Robert Gates arrived in Islamabad Thursday, Jan. 21, to a grim disappointment. He brought with him some 150 military and defense advisers to help the Pakistan army expand its offensive against insurgents launching cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, only to hear from army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas that the "overstretched" Pakistan military would launch no new offensives in 2010.
This embarrassing brush-off greeted Gates on his first visit to Pakistan as Obama's secretary of defense.