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Confusion and denial over Afghan MOD “bomb plot”…

March 29, 2012

Yes, I’ve had to put the term into inverted commas this time.   As I mentioned on Tuesday, the Afghan and international media, headed by the New York Times and the BBC (hardly news organisations of dubious reputation), pushed out a worrying story of 11 suicide vests found inside Defence Ministry buildings and talk of a plot to bomb buses containing Ministry personnel going to work.  Western and Afghan government officials from Kabul appeared to confirm this.  But we now have a strange, but not totally unprecedented, shift in the reporting of this story.  “Afghan defence ministry denies bomb plot” throws some real confusion into the mix, with some Afghan Defence Ministry officials denying anything has happened:

Reuters, 28 Mar 2012: The defence ministry said in a statement that reports on Tuesday about a plot to launch a suicide attack on buses that bring members of the Afghan National Army to the ministry were false.

“We have to say that not only have 16 people not been arrested, nor were 11 suicide vests detained,” it said in a statement.

“The scenario about an attack on transportation buses of Afghan National Army is totally imaginary and baseless.”

And others saying this:

Reuters again: But two security officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said some soldiers who work at the heavily-guarded ministry had been taken into custody for questioning on Tuesday after some suspected suicide bomb vests were found in the parking lot.

One of the officials said the intelligence agencies were investigating a suspected plot involving the hijacking of commuter buses that bring soldiers to the ministry.

He said that six soldiers were detained last week, and following their questioning the suicide vests were found and more arrests were made this week.

“A number of soldiers have been detained,” he said.

The NYT original article did reference the denials by the Afghan MOD:

NYT, 27 Mar 2012: “The Defense Ministry refused to even allow that a breach had occurred; it strenuously denied any attempted bombings and said no soldiers had been arrested.  But the denials were contradicted by a half-dozen Afghan and Western officials. While some praised the fact that Afghan security forces had managed to stop the attack, all spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid contradicting the Afghan government.”

And it is difficult to know quite what to make of it, although I tend to get a little suspicious when an Afghan government statement starts talking about something being “totally imaginary and baseless”.  The following options, or perhaps more realistically, combinations of options, present themselves:

  1. An exercise gone very badly – embarrassingly – wrong.  Comment: Karzai’s spokesman says this is what happened – and that malicious hostile intelligence services then spread rumours to make the exercise seem a real attack
  2. Capability weaknesses and communication failures between different parts of the Afghan intelligence and security services.  Comment: this probably applies in relation to all other options
  3. Major and corrosive rivalry between Afghan security ministries, intelligence and security services. Comment: at least one Afghan official is reported as saying this.  See also my comment for Option 2.
  4. A narrowly (and perhaps accidentally) averted insurgent complex attack.  Comment: this would of course be very embarrassing for the Afghan government.  Numerous international and Afghan media, Afghan and Western officials have reported this.  Also several attacks have been made inside the MOD and suicide attacks on buses of Ministry personnel have happened before.  But – the Taliban deny any knowledge.
  5. An intervention in some way by hostile external intelligence services (Iran? Pakistan?) to confuse/fragment/destabilise the government.  Comment: The Afghan general in charge of MOD security claims this – well, he would, wouldn’t he!
  6. Something approaching a coup attempt.  Comment: I’ve not seen any source claiming this
  7. A “no-story” – a rumour that somehow went crazily out of control.  Comment: Tensions are high in the capital, the rumour mill is in high gear, bad news is everywhere…

Cock up or conspiracy?

"near lockdown..."?

Whether a mistake of some sort, or a more serious narrowly averted attack, the Afghan government and its security and media organs don’t come out of this very well.  The knee-jerk denial of all things “baseless” is poor communications practise, regardless of what has hapened.  And I don’t feel that this sort of scale of story just comes out of nothing (given that Western journalists, Western officials and, crucially, Afghan Ministry officials, were all reportedly saying reasonably credible and consistent things).  I find myself inclining towards options 4 or 7; a complex attack attempt or an out of control rumour.  Both of these possibilities will be made worse by options 2 and 3 and we should consider that even a damaging rumour might spark a whole range of other unpleasant developments (violence, protests, stand-offs or shootouts between rival security organisations, coup attempt, etc…).   See my little anecdote from the 1980s to remind yourself how Afghan eye-witness accounts can easily get distorted.  That the Taliban initially said they knew nothing about it does not necessarily rule out either them, Hezb-i Islami Gulbuddin or (perhaps more plausibly) a Haqqani Network insurgent option.  They may prefer to claim the success and bury the bad news.  And the Taliban media machine appeared very wrong-footed when Rabbani was murdered in September last year.

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