Three-point-five years ago, something very bad happened at the Serena Hotel in Kabul:
We sat down, tea in hand and then it began. All of sudden BOOM! A suicide bomber dressed as police had walked into the security X-ray booth with a vest of explosives attached on his chest and blew himself up killing half of the guards in the booth.The windows began shaking, I quickly think hey that was a bomb but the Serena Glass is thick so we don’t know if its close or far. Usually a bomb like that I would estimate it was 5 blocks away then all of a sudden BOOM again and then rapid gunfire. The guards killed 1 attacker and but two more get inside the main lobby of the Serena.
He continues, telling a horrifying story of a brazen, and before then unprecedented, attack by insurgents against a symbol of the Western presence in Afghanistan: a posh, 5-star hotel unavailable to most Afghans. In a feat of prescience, Barnett Rubin predicted:
Such operations will continue. Even if the vast majority do not succeed, the result will be a mix of the following:
1. Many if not most of the civilian foreign expatriates currently involved in the delivery of aid or other activities in Afghanistan will leave.
2. Most of the rest will be concentrated into a Forbidden City like the Green Zone in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy is already such a compound, and the area around it in Wazir Akbar Khan is already so fortified that it might not take much more to turn that and the adjacent areas of Shahr-i Naw (palace, main ministries, UN offices, embassies) into such a zone.
Rubin was wrong about the first point but very right about the second. I suggested at the time that “the U.S., and the international community, seems to be critically misunderstanding the very nature of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas. And that is why things are sliding downhill by the week.”
As the last three years have unfolded, the U.S. embassy has become even more walled off, even more separate, from the rest of Afghanistan. It had sunk into a kind of stupor: immune from the travails of the city where it lived, yet intimately tied to the reasons why Kabul was facing such problems.
It’s what makes today’s attack (warning: NYT) on the U.S. embassy in Kabul so dramatic, and so very symbolic. Three years ago, an attack on the embassy was unthinkable: it was surrounded by a “ring of steel“—dozens of guards, roadblocks, checkpoints, barricades, and HESCOs—such that a direct assault on it was impossible. Unimaginable, even.
That’s no longer the case. This attack on the embassy is the latest in a series of attacks by insurgents inside Kabul. Last month it was a large, multi-pronged attack on Karte Parwan, a wealthy part of town where Vice President Fahimi lives. This summer was marked by a string of brazen suicide attacks across the country, including one that killed President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali. The month ended with a complex, sustained assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. In April Kabul was rocked with suicide attacks on the Afghan Army and on an ISAF base. In February there was another suicide bomb attack at another hotel in Kabul, killing two. And in January of this year, a brazen suicide assault on an upscale supermarket in Kabul supposedly targeted a Blackwater executive, though the attackers missed their target.
As 2011 has ground on, the attacks in Kabul have become more intense, lasted longer, demonstrated better intelligence and tactics on the part of the insurgency, and struck ever more supposedly-secure targets. It is part of a years-old trend in the Taliban insurgency: by engaging in high-profile attacks on targets we assume to be safe, they are engaging in propaganda of the deed, of using their assaults to send a very deliberate message to the Afghan people: you are not safe, you are not secure, and the West cannot protect you. This has gone on for years now. It is not a secret.
The idea of fighting the war as a battle for the people used to be the hallmark of the COIN gurus advising the DOD on how to fight the war. In fact, a CNAS paper I consulted on and largely agree with—the 2009 paper called “Triage” that was the blueprint for General Stanley McChrystal’s tenure as ISAF commander in 2009-2010—mentioned the importance of protecting the population to instill confidence in our victory at least seven times. It said that a growing number of attacks on Afghan civilians, even if there are few or ineffective attacks on ISAF, would indicate mission failure. And I think recent history has shown that to be absolutely true, and very perceptive.
So it was with tremendous disappointment I read Triage co-author Andrew Exum try to explain away today’s embassy attack in Foreign Policy:
Tuesday, Sept. 13’s dramatic attack on the U.S. Embassy and NATO compounds in Kabul is sure to garner many headlines and will sow doubts about the ability of the Afghan national security forces — which have responsibility for Kabul and its environs — to manage their country’s security after U.S. and allied troops carry out their planned withdrawal between now and 2014.
Those doubts are already leaping to the surface. “The Kabul attack,” claims a headline in the Guardian, “shows the insurgency is as potent as ever” — to take just one example. But we should be careful not to draw too many conclusions just yet about what the attack does or does not mean.
While Exum goes on to caution—properly, I might add—about drawing too many conclusions about the specific insurgents who carried out this attack, I’m struggling to see this as anything other than sophistry. Starting with Exum’s own writing, which includes the Triage paper but also volumes on his blog about how anecdotes drawn from his tours of southern Afghanistan give him hope for the future, it’s a sharp break from his usual modus operandi of analyzing the war.
But the specifics of what he says—and please, read the whole thing so you can judge for yourself if I’m presenting his argument fairly—don’t really make much sense either. For example, the quote he excerpted from the Guardian did not actually say this attack on the embassy shows the Afghan forces are incapable of securing the city—it said the insurgents remain “as potent as ever,” which my review of 2011’s attacks would substantiate as accurate. It is a strawman meant to downplay the significance of today’s attack.
Exum asks, “after several years of calm in Kabul, does Tuesday’s attack signal a degradation of the Afghan intelligence networks that have thwarted earlier attacks on the capital?” This simply doesn’t make sense. Only by ignoring the constant string of attacks in Kabul, large-scale and small, can you describe the city as “calm” (certainly its residents—remember, those Afghans at the center of population-gravity COIN says we must influence?—would not describe the last three years as “calm”). Just three weeks after a large attack in Kabul, and days before this one, Ambassador Crocker tried to say Kabul’s biggest problem was “traffic.” Exum, like the good ambassador, can only view Kabul this way if they are completely disconnected from the daily experience real Afghans have with the war, and with the insurgents continuing to terrorize the city.
But what really gets me about Exum’s attempt to whitewash today’s attack into insignificance is how breezily he contradicts his own argument. In his final paragraph, Exum writes, “”If the Afghan security forces and intelligence services can safeguard their own capital city — which local police officials have previously boasted is guarded by a ‘ring of steel’ — that is reason for encouragement. If they cannot, that is reason for despair.”
The Afghan security forces have been shown, repeatedly, and not just this year but every year at least back to 2008, that they cannot safeguard their own capital city. Repeatedly, and at great loss of life. Again, and again. According to Exum’s own logic, this should be reason for despair. But he implicitly argues against despair.
Let’s ignore history, even recent history. Let’s only look at this year alone, at 2011. There have been at least half a dozen tactically complex, deadly attacks on Kabul targeting the civilian and government institutions of the city and country. It is difficult for me to understand how one can look at that and claim this latest attack not only does not give us grounds to draw conclusions about the war, but that we should suddenly, after years of breezy endorsements of success, stop trying to draw lessons from current events.
There is no way around: while today’s embassy attack is certainly not of a different nature from previous complex attacks in Kabul, its scale, length, and audacity—whatever the actual damage it caused—makes it significant. And it is yet another data point in the war’s downward spiral, of both ISAF’s and the Afghan security forces’ inability to counter an insurgency hellbent on disrupting the capital. To try to spin this any other way is just dishonest pandering.