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Insurgent assault on the outskirts of Kabul

June 25, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Over the night of Thursday 21 June and into Friday 22nd, over a period of approximately 12 hours, a small but motivated insurgent group launched an attack against a hotel complex on the outskirts of Kabul (the Spozhmai hotel at Qargha Lake).  As many as twenty people – most of them Afghan civilians – were believed to have been killed in the assault.  The attack was undertaken by around five insurgents, armed with suicide vests, small arms and rocket propelled grenades.  The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were assisted by ISAF in the operation to eliminate the insurgents.  A Taliban official spokesman described the hotel area as a

“hub of obscenity and vulgarity frequented by the lusty foreign and local top-level military and officials to satisfy their impure lust”

and claimed that

“several dozens of the top-level foreign diplomats and military figures and high-ranking puppets”

had been killed or wounded.

Analysis 

The attack type is now quite familiar – a small group of motivated suicide-bombers with RPG and small arms.  Similarly, with the outcome  – a prolonged flushing out of the group after an initial surprise.  Some analysts have suggested that this is a significant new departure for the Taliban and their allies (the Haqqani Network are the favoured suspects) on the grounds that the target was more obviously a civilian location, as opposed to the political/military targets the insurgents have attacked inside Kabul, and the rationale more driven by Taliban religious ideology.   I am going to shy away from a firm judgement for the moment.  It may be the case that the Taliban are shifting to a new, and much less justifiable, target set.  If it is, it would mean that they are either losing the plot slightly in terms of hearts and minds (this year’s operations not going as well as they hoped?), or that they are becoming confident (over-confident to my mind) over their performance generally and their prospects when ISAF leave.

But my sense is that it is a little early to tell from this attack.  Even if it was the case that the Taliban were shifting target sets, the shift towards civilian vice military targets might not be quite so stark as some suggest – a range of civilian targets have certainly been hit prior to this.

The Afghanistan Analysts Network helpfully reminded me that:

Thomas Ruttig, 23 June: In early 2011, Taleban fighters stormed a branch of Kabul Bank in Jalalabad executing customers, and in late June last they stormed the restaurant of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, killing civilian customers. Also the attacks on the Shia shrinesin Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif in December 2011 killed many civilians, however, these attacks were not claimed by the Taleban.

The Taliban and allied insurgent groups will be selecting and attacking targets for a range of reasons, not always for purely rational and coherent ones.  As they adjust to this new environment (ISAF withdrawing and Afghan government attempting to step up) they may still be yet to settle into a new pattern of targets and objectives.  Command and control is weak amidst the groups – some more zealous than others.  As some targets become harder (Kabul’s “Ring of Steel”) and the desire to demonstrate the progress of the Spring offensive strengthens, some targets might be too tempting (or easy) to resist, even if they are not expressly in line with the Quetta shura leadership desires.  Civilian collateral damage is a tricky issue for the Taliban.  If the media backlash against the amount of civilian casualties grows, this might be a lesson learned for the Taliban and they might refocus on military and political targets.

My initial reaction was to note a couple of angles:

a)      that this was on the outskirts of Kabul rather than inside the, perhaps increasingly difficult to penetrate, city centre “Ring of Steel”.

Security at the lake is light compared with targets inside the Afghan capital. While hotels at the lake have armed guards, there are no massive blast walls and security cordons that surround government and military buildings in Kabul. Zahir said only two of the three guards killed at the hotel were armed.  The hotel was a soft target compared with the attacks insurgents have launched inside the city in recent years, including taking over construction sites and firing down on embassies and storming the tightly secured Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul last summer.”

b)      and that, with a very crude measurement of “hours taken to clear”, the Taliban “spectaculars” have moved from 20 – 30 hours to deal with (April 2012 and Sept 2011 attacks inside Kabul) down to 12 hours, suggesting that the ANSF/ISAF rapid reaction combo is acquitting itself quite well.  Of course, the extent to which ISAF special forces teams and advisors are “carrying” ANSF units will remain open to conjecture.  One Twitter report noted the presence of 24 Norwegian Special Forces, which tends to suggest direct military involvement more than it does mentoring.

If Kabul is proving harder for the insurgents to penetrate and civilian casualties growing in unpopularity, I wonder if we might start to see “Kabul-style” attacks on political/military targets occurring in the larger, but perhaps less well protected, regional cities in the second half of this year – Herat, Mazar, Jalalabad, Kandahar (already been done?)…?

Lets watch this space and see what happens…

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