Last weekend’s attacks in Afghanistan demonstrates that the Haqqani Network remains committed to conducting attacks, Afghan security forces are effective, and blame game politics are alive and well.
Consider President Karzai’s statement: “The fact terrorists were able to enter Kabul and other provinces was an intelligence failure for us and especially for NATO.”
In retort, the official NATO response played down failure and noted how well Afghan forces responded. General Allen said, “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. They integrated their efforts, helped protect their fellow citizens, and largely kept the insurgents contained.”
“Intelligence failure” may replace “night raid” as this fighting season’s talking point from the palace. Karzai’s criticisms of NATO can be frustrating given the billions of dollars expended in Afghanistan, thousands of lives lost, and eroding NATO publics’ support. In light of the upcoming Chicago Summit, what makes good headlines doesn’t necessarily make good policy. With an increasingly unpopular war, signs of failure abound, but there are successes too. The New York Times report card offers a useful summary: school enrollment is up, life expectancy grew by 13 years, and Afghan forces have doubled.
These facts are a cause for celebration, not regret. An under-reported reality in Afghanistan is freedom of movement. Ordinary Afghans, as well as terrorists, take advantage of improved infrastructure and relatively open roads. Unlike other war zones, minefields do not separate warring parties, racism does not create ethnic cantonments, and Afghan intelligence has not achieved a Stasi-like omnipotence. Afghan forces can clear IEDs from roads, disrupt terrorist plots, and conduct counterinsurgency. In spite of media reports, President Karzai largely rejects the idea that his country is at war. Instead, he promotes an open society and an ethnically balanced army and professional police force to provide security.
For all the talk about Afghanistan, very few analysts consider how the Taliban have evolved from a pariah government to a terrorist group. Over the last decade, the Taliban’s leader Mullah Omar went from president of a rogue state to an outlaw seldom seen nor heard. If the Haqqanis didn’t infiltrate fighters into Afghanistan, the Taliban would have nothing to tweet. The Taliban have lost the ability to stage unit-sized operations to take and hold territory from the Afghan government. The shift from army to terrorist group reminds us that terrorism is “propaganda of the deed.” But even upon thoughtful analysis, the Haqqani attacks are minor by South Asian standards. Consider how another Pakistan-based group terrorized Mumbai over the course of four days, killing 164 and wounding over 300. The difference between the scale of these attacks has as much to do with how ineffective the Haqanni network is and how capable the NATO-supported Afghan counter-terrorism forces have become.
Martine van Biljert captures some of this argument
But not all went well for the Taliban, either. Although they managed to pull off a series of attacks that looked spectacular, particularly from a distance, and that kept get Kabul’s population on their toes during the day and awake for most of the night, I can’t escape the impression that, by and large, Afghans in Kabul were not as impressed as the international media. They also seemed less impressed than the attackers would have hoped. People expressed exasperation that the authorities had not been able to stop the assaults from happening (many were particularly irked by the fact that empty buildings that can be used as launching pads are not being more effectively monitored, despite similar earlier attacks), but there also seemed to be a general sense that the Afghan security forces had responded well and that they had been up to the task.
As we think about the future of Afghanistan, it is important to avoid playing the blame game and acknowledge some facts. It is not NATO’s war to win or lose. It is the Afghans’ war and NATO must concentrate its efforts on giving the Afghans the tools they need to fight their war.
Derek S. Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a Professor of National Security Affairs and the EMC Informationist Chair at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.