Coalition commanders were full of praise for Afghanistan’s security forces after Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers assaulted buildings in the heart of Kabul Monday. General Stanley McChrystal, the head of NATO and US forces in Afghanistan, said the Afghan national forces should be ‘commended’ for dealing ‘effectively’ with the attack. US Brigadier General Anne Macdonald claimed the Afghan forces responded ‘very well’ while an ISAF spokesperson gushed that they had ‘rapidly’ seized the initiative.
Don’t be blinded by the spin. Effective security is not about responding to an attack; it’s about being proactive and preventing one from happening in the first place. The Taliban have been hitting Kabul with shocking regularity in recent months. But Monday’s assault had an added dimension of brazenness. Striking within yards of the Presidential Palace while President Karzai was swearing in members of his new cabinet, the Taliban demonstrated that they can penetrate the security cordon around Kabul and – if they choose — take the fight right to the seat of government power. This does not bode well for NATO’s eventual exit from Afghanistan; a strategy which hinges on training the Afghan National Army and Police to take control of the nation’s security. If the ANA and ANP cannot stop militants from targeting the President’s doorstep, how are they going to protect the whole country?
I’ve written posts detailing how the drive to accelerate the training of Afghanistan’s security forces has led to poor vetting of recruits (see Afghan Security Forces: The Weak Link in NATO’s exit strategy Parts I&II). Monday’s street battles, I believe, vividly illustrate the fallout of this policy. It is very easy for insurgents – be they Taliban or other militants – to hit targets in Afghanistan, including well guarded ones. The insurgents have sleepers on the streets, inside the ANA and ANP, within the government and, I have no doubt, inside the lower levels of the Afghan intelligence services. The enemies within aid and abet attacks and sometimes carry them out directly. Corruption is also having a devastating impact on Afghanistan’s security. It is not at all unheard of for poorly paid, ideologically neutral ANP to turn a blind eye to militant activities for a fee.
Some media reports have suggested that Monday’s coordinated attack was sophisticated. It wasn’t. There’s nothing terribly advanced about arming a group of men with explosives, grenades and small arms and having them assault a few locations at roughly the same time. What happened Monday was however deeply symbolic. The Taliban have sent a clear message that they can strike anywhere, anytime they like. It will take a lot more than praise for Afghanistan’s security forces to effectively counter that.