Why the Kabul Embassy Attack Really Is a Disaster

Tuesday's deadly assault is part of a years-old trend in the Taliban insurgency

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Afghan policemen inspect the inside of a building after a battle with Taliban insurgents near the U.S. embassy in Kabul / Reuters

Three-point-five years ago, something very bad happened at the Serena Hotel in Kabul:

We sat down, tea in hand and then it began. All of sudden BOOM! A suicide bomber dressed as police had walked into the security X-ray booth with a vest of explosives attached on his chest and blew himself up killing half of the guards in the booth.The windows began shaking, I quickly think hey that was a bomb but the Serena Glass is thick so we don't know if its close or far. Usually a bomb like that I would estimate it was 5 blocks away then all of a sudden BOOM again and then rapid gunfire. The guards killed 1 attacker and but two more get inside the main lobby of the Serena.

Naser Shahalemi continues, telling a horrifying story of a brazen, and before then unprecedented, attack by insurgents against a symbol of the Western presence in Afghanistan: a posh, 5-star hotel unavailable to most Afghans. In a feat of prescience, Barnett Rubin predicted:

Such operations will continue. Even if the vast majority do not succeed, the result will be a mix of the following:

1. Many if not most of the civilian foreign expatriates currently involved in the delivery of aid or other activities in Afghanistan will leave.
2. Most of the rest will be concentrated into a Forbidden City like the Green Zone in Baghdad. The U.S. Embassy is already such a compound, and the area around it in Wazir Akbar Khan is already so fortified that it might not take much more to turn that and the adjacent areas of Shahr-i Naw (palace, main ministries, UN offices, embassies) into such a zone.

Rubin was wrong about the first point but very right about the second. I suggested at the time that "the U.S., and the international community, seems to be critically misunderstanding the very nature of conflict and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal areas. And that is why things are sliding downhill by the week."

As the last three years have unfolded, the U.S. embassy has become even more walled off, even more separate, from the rest of Afghanistan. It had sunk into a kind of stupor: immune from the travails of the city where it lived, yet intimately tied to the reasons why Kabul was facing such problems.

It's what makes Tuesday's attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul so dramatic, and so very symbolic. Three years ago, an attack on the embassy was unthinkable: it was surrounded by a "ring of steel" -- dozens of guards, roadblocks, checkpoints, barricades, and HESCOs -- such that a direct assault on it was impossible. Unimaginable, even.

That's no longer the case. This attack on the embassy is the latest in a series of attacks by insurgents inside Kabul. Last month it was a large, multi-pronged attack on Karte Parwan, a wealthy part of town where Vice President Fahimi lives. This summer was marked by a string of brazen suicide attacks across the country, including one that killed President Hamid Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali. The month ended with a complex, sustained assault on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. In April Kabul was rocked with suicide attacks on the Afghan Army and on an ISAF base. In February there was another suicide bomb attack at another hotel in Kabul, killing two. And, in January of this year, a brazen suicide assault on an upscale supermarket in Kabul supposedly targeted a Blackwater executive, though the attackers missed their target.

As 2011 has ground on, the attacks in Kabul have become more intense, lasted longer, demonstrated better intelligence and tactics on the part of the insurgency, and struck ever more supposedly secure targets. It is part of a years-old trend in the Taliban insurgency: by executing high-profile attacks on targets we assume to be safe, they are engaging in propaganda of the deed, using their assaults to send a very deliberate message to the Afghan people: you are not safe, you are not secure, and the West cannot protect you. This has gone on for years now. It is not a secret.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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