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.

The idea of fighting the war as a battle for the people used to be the hallmark of the counterinsurgency (COIN) gurus advising the Pentagon on how to fight the war. In fact, a Center for New American Security paper I consulted on and largely agree with -- the 2009 paper, "Triage," that was the blueprint for General Stanley McChrystal's tenure as ISAF commander in 2009-2010 -- mentioned the importance of protecting the population to instill confidence in our victory at least seven times. It said that a growing number of attacks on Afghan civilians, even if there are few or ineffective attacks on ISAF, would indicate mission failure. And I think recent history has shown that to be absolutely true, and very perceptive.

Sadly, the American leadership seems eager to downplpay the seriousness of this attack. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, for example, was outright dismissive:

They got into a building and did some harassment fire on us and ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force]. A half a dozen RPG rounds from 800 meters away--that isn't Tet [the Tet Offensive in Vietnam]; that's harassment.

If that's the best they can do, you know, I think it's actually a statement of their weakness and more importantly since Kabul is in the hands of Afghan security it's a real credit to the Afghan National Security Forces.

As Reuters pointed out, this was the longest and most sustained attack on Kabul since 2001 -- literally an unprecedented event in Kabul's recent history. At least eleven civilians were killed in the process, including three children. This is not what a weakened insurgency does, and it's deeply unfair of Ambassador Crocker to write off a bunch of dead children as "harassment."

On Sunday, just two days before the largest and most sustained assault Kabul had seen in a decade, Ambassador Crocker revived an old line about the situation in Afghanistan's capital: that it was perfectly safe and people who think it's not are just looking for things to complain about. "The biggest problem in Kabul is traffic," he told the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl.

It echoed, eerily, NATO senior representative in Kabul Mark Sedwill's analysis last year. "Children are probably safer [in Kabul] than they would be in London, New York or Glasgow or many other cities," he told reporters. The uproar from NGO's, other governments, and residents of Kabul was so large that Sedwill had to later clarify that he meant something else.

What these senior civilian officials have in common is a deep disconnection from the ordinary lives of Afghans, even in Kabul. I think it might shock Crocker and Sedwill to know that there are entire areas, houses, and restaurants where Afghans -- the very people we claim to be defending and supporting -- are not allowed to enter. It's like having separate drinking fountains for whites and coloreds in 1950s America, only there are car bombs and abductions and 22-hour RPG-fueled assaults on foreign embassies.

Worse still, Kabul has been the site of a trend shared across the entirety of Afghanistan: a consistent, in many cases accelerating, degredation of security focused almost entirely on civilians. When Ambassador Crocker tries to say that the Afghan forces broke up this attack so everything is cool, he is missing the point: The Afghan security forces have been shown, repeatedly, and not just this year but every year at least back to 2008, that they cannot safeguard their own capital city. Repeatedly, and at great loss of life. Again, and again.

Even ignoring history, even recent history, let's only look at this year alone, at 2011. There have been at least half a dozen tactically complex, deadly attacks on Kabul targeting the civilian and government institutions of the city and country. To write off this attack, to pretend it is not a data point confirming that the war is an absolute disaster, is the most baffling conclusion I can think of drawing from it.