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Kabul Attack: Afghani Security Woes or Taliban Incompetence?

April 30, 2008
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart

stratfortir.jpgThe Taliban’s April 27 attack against a ceremony commemorating Afghanistan’s independence has gotten a lot of media attention. One reason driving the coverage is that the attack took place during an event broadcast on live television that was attended by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and an array of local and foreign dignitaries, including the U.S. and British ambassadors and the NATO commander in Afghanistan.

The strike, which left three people dead, has also resulted in severe criticism of Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, with some Afghan lawmakers calling for their resignations.

Clearly, the attack underscores the Karzai regime’s continuing struggle to achieve stability in Afghanistan: the attack was the third assassination attempt against him in his four-year presidency. It is also a reminder — like the massive suicide bombing that occurred in Baghlan province Nov. 6, 2007, and the Jan. 14 attack against the Serena Hotel in Kabul — that Taliban militants have expanded beyond their traditional operational strongholds in Afghanistan’s South.

In retrospect however, perhaps the most interesting facet of this attack was not how it drew attention to security problems in Afghanistan, that it happened at a high-profile event, or even that the attack was launched in Kabul. Like the suicide bombing at Bagram Air Base during U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s February 2007 visit, those things have all happened before.

Rather, the truly interesting factor in this case, and one that has received little focus from most observers, is that the Taliban proved incapable of capitalizing on a golden opportunity to stage a dramatic and effective operation even though they were given many weeks to prepare for the attack.

Security Problems
Planning security for a high-profile outdoor event is a difficult endeavor — especially when the attendees include much of a nation’s leadership and VIPs from the foreign diplomatic corps. This difficulty is compounded exponentially when the event is publicized in advance, scheduled to occur in a third-world country, and when that country is in the midst of fighting an active insurgency.

Historically, militants have taken advantage of such events to launch assassination attempts. Cases that come readily to mind include the Oct. 6, 1981, assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the a victory celebration parade, or the May 9, 2004, assassination of Chechen President Akhmed Kadyrov at the Dynamo Stadium in Grozny during a celebration of his country’s Victory Day.

Given the high-profile nature of this particular event, Afghan security forces and their coalition allies appear to have increased their intelligence-collection efforts prior to game day. According to testimony given by Amrullah Saleh to the Afghan parliament, those increased intelligence efforts successfully managed to uncover information indicating that an attack against the event was in the works.

On April 26, coalition forces conducted an operation in the Tagab district of Kapisa province that targeted a Taliban militant who allegedly was planning to attack during the event. As coalition troops attempted to search the compound, a major fight ensued. Close air support called in by the coalition forces resulted in the deaths of several Taliban militants, including the man targeted by the operation.

The intelligence also led to heightened security for the event, in the form of increased perimeter security and random vehicle checks. However, in the real world, especially the third world, hermetically sealing an area off from any threat of attack is very difficult especially when that attack is planned in advance. The challenge is compounded when the aggressor’s weapons and resources are positioned long before that security perimeter has been established.

This was the case in the aforementioned Kadyrov assassination, where months before the attack, Chechen militants hid improvised explosive devices in the structure of the stadium as the concrete was being poured during a renovation project.

In last week’s Kabul attack, the Taliban team opened fire with light weapons from a room they had rented in a building located several hundred meters from where the main dignitaries were positioned during the ceremony. The room sat on the top floor of a dilapidated three-story building heavily damaged years ago during the Afghan civil war. Apparently, they rented the space some 45 days before launching their attack. The assault team did not reportedly leave the room for 36 hours prior to the attack, ensuring evasion of the security perimeter and scrutiny by security personnel. They also avoided being randomly stopped by security forces patrolling the area (though in a place like Afghanistan, where there are few surviving public records and ample fraudulent identification documents, name checks conducted on random pedestrians and drivers are dubious at best).

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MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
The building from which militants opened fire on Afghan President Hamid Karzai on April 27In another operational flourish, the attackers began to fire during the 21-gun salute. This provided them with momentary cover for their gunfire. It also created a slight delay in the realization that an attack was under way while causing some confusion. Reports indicate that the attackers also were able to release at least one RPG round in the attack.

Security forces quickly located the room and the three Taliban assailants were killed. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the attack. They also noted that they had sent six militants to form the team, three of whom had been killed. A Taliban spokesman also claimed the group was not attempting to hit anyone directly but wanted to demonstrate to the world that it can attack anywhere. Their claim rings hollow. It is difficult to believe the Taliban would invest so much time and effort in a plan not intended to kill people. The propaganda point the Taliban were allegedly trying to make could have been made with far less effort and fewer casualties, and could have been dramatically emphasized with a spectacular attack.

Taliban Ineffectiveness
Over the past few years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the Taliban’s use of suicide bombers. Attacks like the one that occurred April 29 in Khogyani in Nangarhar province, killing 15 people, demonstrate the group’s improvement at executing that dark art.

Certainly thoughts of a vehicle-borne or pedestrian-borne suicide bomb attack occurred to Afghan and coalition forces when they obtained intelligence indicating a planned attack against the event. This concept would also seem to explain the noticeably increased efforts to randomly stop and search vehicles before the event. The fact that a suicide attack directed against the event did not take place either demonstrates that the Taliban believed security was too tight to attempt such an attack or perhaps that the April 26 raids in Tagab pre-empted one. In the end, however, concerns about suicide bombers on the part of the security forces caused them to focus too narrowly on the suicide bomber threat and therefore not place much emphasis on countering the small-arms threat.

In fact, recent reports indicated that the attack element in the building may have been only one portion of a larger plot that included a suicide car bomb and a mortar attack. Reportedly these two other elements were neutralized prior to the attack (perhaps by the operation in Tagab). This information underscores that the Afghan and coalition security forces are not totally ineffective and that the Taliban are not omnipotent.

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  In any event, the measures put in place by Afghan security were not as terrible as some would claim. These measures did serve to keep the Taliban assault team at a distance where the weapons they employed in the attack would not prove to be terribly effective –- in an urban environment, anything over a couple hundred meters is very difficult to engage with an RPG-7. In any environment, a militant armed with an AK-47 can do little more than “spray and pray” at that distance. Had they been able to get their attack team closer to the target, the Taliban attackers could have caused far more bloodshed.

Like the ineffective attacks against the Cheney visit and the Serena Hotel, the Taliban expended a significant amount of time and resources planning and executing this attack. However, like those other two assaults, the impact of the latest incident has been far greater in the media than it was in terms of lives lost.

In fact, when one considers the time spent by the Taliban planning the attack, it becomes clear that this was not some hastily improvised operation cobbled together at the last minute. In addition to allowing them to secure their attack position, the advance notice also provided them with a lot of time to plan, train their operatives, pre-position weapons, and ultimately stage the attack. Considering this, it is remarkable that they were only able to kill three people out of a potential target pool of hundreds.

One reason for the ineffectiveness by the Taliban was that their weapons proved poorly chosen for this attack. They knew in advance the distance from the room to the review stand and could have chosen weapons better suited to attacks from that distance. For example, unlike an AK-47, most sniper rifles are capable of easily engaging a target at 500 meters. It is what they are designed for. A trained sniper or two could have unleashed some very effective fire during the duration of that 21-gun salute – taking out several VIPs before anyone even realized that an attack was under way.

In the broader context, many will see this as a tactical victory for the Taliban, even without having killed Karzai. The attackers were able to disrupt the event and cause the international media to label the Afghan security forces as woefully incompetent. However, a closer examination reveals that the Afghan security forces are not the only ones battling incompetence. The Taliban have shown themselves unable to capitalize on a golden opportunity.

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