Now that the shooting has stopped in Kabul, the real fight begins: transforming the grim series of attacks that rocked the country this week into good news for the Afghan government and its international backers.
The spin-doctors went into overdrive while the capital was still under assault on Sunday, with US Ambassador Ryan Crocker telling CNN that “the Taliban [are] very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting.”
This, of course, is the same Ryan Crocker who told The Washington Post shortly before the last major attacks, in September, 2011, that Kabul’s biggest problem was traffic.
Lt. Colonel Jimmie Cummings, spokesperson for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul described himself as “underwhelmed” by Sunday’s assault. But at ISAF headquarters and the nearby American Embassy, all staff were locked down tight during the long hours when the fighting continued.
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General John Allen, commander of US and NATO forces in the country, was liberal in his praise for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in a statement he issued Sunday:
“I am enormously proud of how quickly Afghan security forces responded to today's attacks in Kabul. They were on scene immediately, well-led and well-coordinated,” he wrote. “They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens and largely kept the insurgents contained. The fighting goes on this evening, and ISAF is standing by to support our Afghan partners when and if they need it. I consider it a testament to their skill and professionalism – of how far they've come – that they haven't yet asked for that support.”
The aggressors in Kabul numbered in the dozens; the ANSF has thousands of police, army and security forces in the capital, and are on track to have more than 350,000 in the country by the end of 2014.
Still, it took them 18 hours to subdue the insurgents, and by most accounts, NATO had to step in with helicopters and “mentors” early Monday morning to get the job done.
In nearly all serious attacks in Kabul, NATO has had to step in. Last September, when a handful of attackers held the capital hostage for 20 hours, the ANSF were clearly not up to the task. The crisis ended only when a NATO soldier went into the unfinished building where the final few attackers had holed up and threw a grenade at them.
In June, 2011, when Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel was under attack, NATO sent in choppers to end a five-hour standoff. The ANSF would not fight the attackers, according to numerous accounts.
Afghan officials say with some certainty that the latest attacks were perpetrated by the Haqqani network, a group of insurgents believed to be based in Pakistan, and which has struck the capital several times before. This latest series of assaults were especially brazen, with at least seven different sites attacked in Kabul alone. They seemed designed to demonstrate just how vulnerable the Afghan government and populace is.
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Very few civilians were killed – just three throughout the country, while 39 insurgents died, according to media reports.
This has been used as an indication of the efficacy of the Afghan forces, but it is just as likely that the insurgents were not trying to harm civilians. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahed, who claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement sent to the Associated Press, said that the targets were Afghan government and foreign installations.
President Hamid Karzai praised his troops for their sacrifice, even as he criticized NATO for a “failure of intelligence” for allowing the insurgents into the capital.
The media has almost uniformly reported that the Afghan forces performed well during the attacks, and Afghan citizens were happy to jump in.
Najib Sharifi a journalist and filmmaker, waxed enthusiastic on Facebook:
“From today's insecurity in Kabul, all I am going to remember will be that Afghan MPs stood up against the insurgents to help Afghan forces; Afghan TV aired patriotic songs and only Afghan forces were repelling the attack not the international forces. Long live Afghanistan!”
But not everyone was willing to sign on to the general euphoria. One Afghan student expressed a very different view in a private message:
“There has been a whole campaign for ANSF on Facebook. But the truth is they outnumbered the attackers and it still took them a very long time to take them down. How will it be if NATO leaves? I can't imagine and I don't want to!”
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The United States insists that everything is on track for an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014. The ANSF will be ready and willing to step up, say military strategists.
But Joel Fitzgibbon, former Australian Defence Minister, was less sanguine in a piece he wrote for The Australian on Monday:
“We've seen just how much international training and mentoring teams have relied on special forces elements to clear and disrupt the insurgency,” he said. “No one who really knows their stuff would openly suggest Afghan security forces will be able to do it without them at any time inside this decade.”