KABUL, Afghanistan – The Afghan police and army have won praise for fighting off one of the war’s most ambitious insurgent strikes, but the siege of key diplomatic, government and military installations in Kabul also displayed worrisome weaknesses, including glaring intelligence failures.
With evidence pointing to a Taliban offshoot known as the Haqqani network as the perpetrators of the tightly coordinated assaults, the prospect of protecting Kabul appears even more difficult. The group has ready access to infiltration routes from Pakistan and is strong in provinces surrounding the capital, three of which were also the scene of the apparently linked attacks Sunday.
The outcome of the 18 hours of fighting that ended early Monday – insurgent deaths outnumbering those of security forces more than 3 to 1, and the attackers failing to penetrate sensitive targets such as the Afghan parliament – is being cited by Western and Afghan officials as proof that Afghan forces will soon be ready to take over the task of confronting the Taliban and other militant groups without coalition assistance.
That transition is key to the U.S. effort to extricate itself and its allies from the decadelong conflict. In the coming year, the combat role is to revert almost exclusively to the Afghans, with most Western troops departing in 2014.
But the attacks, which paralyzed much of Kabul, also point to a central conundrum. Western officials portray this brand of urban warfare as a sign of insurgents’ frustration with their inability to directly take on NATO forces on the battlefield. But the Taliban and other militant groups instead see success; the mere ability to carry out attacks of this size and scope, they believe, undermines the faith of Afghan citizens that their government can protect them.
Afghanistan’s interior minister, Bismillah Mohammadi, said the duration of the siege was due in large measure to police and soldiers exercising caution to avoid endangering civilians. In some previous encounters, wild gunfire by Afghan forces has been blamed for civilian deaths and injuries.
Even so, the strain could be seen as the fighting dragged on into Monday morning. Eleven members of the Afghan security forces were killed, according to President Hamid Karzai’s office, and their deaths drew emotional reactions from comrades. As police were carrying away the bodies, some fellow officers became furious at Afghan journalists looking on and taking photos. One commanding officer pointed his weapon directly at a group of them, shouting threats and insults.