September 14, 2011

AFGHAN GROUND SITUATION FAR FROM REASSURING

B.RAMAN

According to an analysis by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Afghan Taliban and its affiliates such as the Haqqani network and GulbuddinHeckmatyar’sHizbe-Islami (HI) attempted to launch three big attacks on strategic targets in Kabul since the responsibility for the internal security of Kabul was transferred by the US-led NATO forces to the Afghan security forces three months ago. In two of these attacks, the Afghan security forces were taken by surprise.Only in one, they were able to thwart the attack.

2.The two successful attacks by the Taliban and its affiliates were one in June when seven people were killed in an attack on the Inter-Continental Hotel and another in August when insurgents stormed the British Council HQ, killing 12 people.

3.There was a third attack on September 13. It began at about 13:30 local time when a car carrying insurgents was stopped at a checkpoint about 300 metres from the US Embassy. There were several large explosions and the insurgents, who were thwarted from raiding the US Embassy, entered a nearby nine-storey building under construction and from there opened fire with rockets and mortars.

4.Haroun Mir, Director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, has been quoted as saying that it was the first time that four groups of militants had attacked in four different places--- near the US Embassy, on a Police Station and an attempt at forced entry into the airport which was foiled. The identity of the fourth target is not clear.

5.The insurgents used a mix of modus operandi consisting of commando-style attacks with explosives and hand-held weapons near the US Embassy and suicide attacks in the other three places. While the attacks were spectacular in their planning and execution, they were not very lethal as seen from the low figures of fatalities---less than 10, four of them policemen. No casualties were reported from the US Embassy. The total number of insurgents involved in the attack in the US Embassy area is estimated at around 10.

6. In view of the location of the US Embassy in the area attacked, it is saturated with state-of-the-art CCTV cameras given by the US, but these were of no help in detecting the arrival of the insurgents. It is suspected that the insurgent had cached the hand-held weapons beforehand in the building under construction and launched their raid only with explosives. In the confusion caused by the explosions, they entered the building, retrieved the hand-held weapons and started exchanging fire with the security forces posted in the area.

7.The reports on the attacks received so far reflect somewhat poorly on the Afghan and NATO intelligence both of which failed to give advance warnings, but speak well of the reflexes of the Afghan security forces, which recovered quickly from the initial shock and managed to deny a strategic victory to the insurgents.

8.Tactical surprise scored by the insurgents due to poor Afghan and NATIO intelligence, but a successful fight-back by the Afghan Security Forces after recovering from the initial surprise and shock have been a defining characteristic of recent attacks in Kabul. Till now, the largely US-trained Afghan Security Forces have been able to stand up to the Taliban and its affiliates much better than the US-trained forces of South Vietnam were able to do against the Vietcong in the 1970s.

9. However, what should be of real concern is not the reach of the Taliban and its affiliates into Kabul, but their continuing hold in the interior areas despite the counter-insurgency operations with modern weapons and technology launched by the US last year.

10.The Afghan Taliban managed to carry out a catastrophic attack on a US helicopter on August 5,2011, carrying 30 US troops including 22 Navy SEALS, belonging to the same unit which had killed Osama bin Laden in a raid at Abbottabad in Pakistan on May 2 ---killing all of them. It was the largest fatality in a single incident ever suffered by the US during its military operations in Afghanistan launched in 2001 and the largest fatality ever suffered in a single incident by the Joint Special Operations Command, which controls the operations of the Navy SEALS since the JSOC was set up. Seven Afghan troops and an interpreter also died in the incident.

11. Subsequently, at least two Afghan civilians were killed and up to 77 non-Afghan soldiers - thought mostly to be American - were injured when a suicide bomber in a lorry attacked a NATO base in the Wardak province on September 11, the 10th anniversary of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US homeland.

12. These incidents in Kabul and the interior underline the continuing ability of the Afghan Taliban and its affiliates to take NATO/Afghan forces by surprise. The US intelligence capability vis-a-vis Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region might have improved, but not its capability vis-a-vis Taliban and its allies or affiliates. The US ground intelligence inside Afghanistan---preventive as well as disruptive--- is as poor as ever. HUMINT in particular is weak quantitatively as well as qualitatively. The Afghan intelligence has not been able to compensate forthe USA's poor HUMINT capability.

13. The USA’s analysis and assessment capability is below par.It does not have a correct measure of the Taliban and its affiliates. The US may be making headway against Al Qaeda, but it is not against the Taliban. If one considers the totality of the picture in the Af-Pak region---anti-terror, anti-insurgency---- the US is far from prevailing in Afghanistan.

14.The US troops after 10 years in Afghanistan are in the same position as the Soviet troops after eightyears were in 1987---victory increasingly elusive.

15.The US strategy in Afghanistan needs a re-visit.So too the Indian strategy. Despite all our support,the NajibGovernment in Kabul collapsed in April 1992.A similar fate might befall the Karzai Govt.

16.We had a Northern Alliance option after Najib fell.We do not have a similar option in Afghanistan today. Post-1992, India, Russia and Iran jointly countered Pakistani machinations. Today, Pakistan has moved closer to Russia and the Central Asian Republics in an attempt to prevent a convergence of Indian and Russian objectives in Afghanistan. The implications for the security of this region and for our internal security if the Taliban and its affiliates, with Pakistani support, manage to impose a no-win situation on the US-led NATO forces need to be carefully examined by us and necessary correctives introduced in our Af-Pak policy. (14-9-11)

( Thewriter is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: seventyone2@gmail.com . Twitter: @SORBONNE75 )

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