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“Complex” attack on American University of Afghanistan

August 25, 2016

Summary: two gunmen attacked a university campus “soft target” in Kabul yesterday evening containing hundreds of students and staff.  A swift Afghan security response may have helped to limit the death toll.

uni attackOn Wednesday 24th August, two gunmen attacked the American University of Afghanistan, in the southern part of Kabul city.  Reportedly around 12 people died (and a few dozen injured) in an extended gun battle that began around mid-evening and lasted into the small hours of Thursday morning as Afghan government security forces attempted to neutralise the attackers, secure the area and rescue the hundreds of students who were on campus at the time.   The fate of the attackers themselves is unclear.

Analysis and Outlook

The American University of Afghanistan was opened in 2006 as a partnership between the US and Afghan governments.  Even “soft” targets in Kabul are relatively well protected – the university had high walls topped with barbed wire.  It is perhaps a surprise that the casualties amongst the students were so low.  But the Afghan military response teams in the capital have had much hard experience in responding to siunimilar events and may account for this.  It remains unclear who perpetrated the attack and it remains unclaimed at time of writing.  The Taliban are by far and away the most likely suspects, although Islamic State have recently been launching attacks into the capital as well.  Earlier this month, two members of the university staff were reported to have been kidnapped.

The attack was described as “complex”, which I would query slightly.  This is usually a military term for a multiple, simultaneous and multi-locational, attack.  In the case of Afghanistan, this usually involves use of IEDs and/or suicide bomb attack.  A good example of this was the 13 September 2011 attack in Kabul.  The university attack seems to have been conducted by two gunmen only, although their fate and the ultimate scale and scope of the terrorist attack is still unclear.  It is perhaps inevitable that the term is slowly being devalued and used to described complicated situations: securing the safety of several hundred students and staff would certainly fall into this category.  ISAF had this to offer by way of definition back in 2011:

Complex Attack is an attack conducted by multiple hostile elements which employ at least two distinct classes of weapon systems (i.e. indirect fire and direct fire, IED and surface to air fire) against one or more targets. Complex attacks differ from coordinated attacks due to the lack of any indication of a long term planning process or prior preparation. Coordinated Attack is an attack that exhibits deliberate planning conducted by multiple hostile elements, against one or more targets from multiple locations. A coordinated attack may involve any number of weapon systems. Key difference between complex and coordinated is that a coordinated attack requires the indication of insurgent long term planning. High-profile Attacks are defined as Explosive Hazard event types, where only IED explosions were taken into account. We do not consider IED found & cleared or premature detonations. Only IEDs that actually exploded in an attack are taken into account. The primary method of attack for high profile attacks are Person-borne IED (PBIED), Suicide-borne IED (SVBIED) and Vehicle-borne IED (VBIED).”

However it is classed, a soft target on the edge of town might be a more preferable target for insurgents – now including IS – as they contemplate some now relatively well-experienced Afghan special forces.  The Afghan forces are probably still mentored by US and other international special forces troops and are now becoming accustomed to dealing with these forms of assault.  But central Kabul will continue to offer a wider range of attractive and high profile political, NGO and military targeting opportunities – it is an insurgent “no-brainer”.  In the absence of a signifcant breakthrough in Government/Taliban dialogue – which I judge highly unlikely this year – attacks into Kabul will continue.

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