As U.S. pullout nears, Taliban bombs undermine Afghan army

McClatchy NewspapersJune 9, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — A six-week-old Taliban offensive that's struck some of the most peaceful parts of Afghanistan and killed police commanders and senior officials is undermining confidence in the Afghan army and police just as the Obama administration considers how quickly it should begin drawing down U.S. forces here.

The campaign, whose targets have included high-level meetings of government officials and supposedly secure facilities in Kabul, including the Defense Ministry, has left many Afghans uncertain of the competency of the security forces and their loyalty. Those concerns, just weeks from the day when Afghan forces are to assume responsibility for security in seven key provinces and cities, make it more difficult to persuade Afghans to back the government of President Hamid Karzai over the Taliban, analysts say.

"The Taliban were able to kill senior military people, which has a huge impact on the outlook of the people," said Attiqullah Amarkhil, a retired Afghan army general who's a frequent commentator on Afghan television.

"The Taliban militants have infiltrated security institutions; otherwise, how is it possible to attack the Defense Ministry building?" he asked.

Officials for the International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led coalition here, discount the impact of the offensive, saying that while some of the suicide bombings are spectacular — one killed one of Afghanistan's most legendary anti-Taliban commanders — they've had little military effect.

British Maj. Tim James, the ISAF spokesman, said the offensive showed how desperate the Taliban were.

"We have seen more desperate attacks since the insurgents launched their offensive, indiscriminately targeting civilians," James said. He noted as well that the Taliban have made only sporadic challenges to ISAF forces.

But there's also little doubt that the scale of the offensive leaves average Afghans wondering how well government forces would do without the backing of the coalition.

Particularly unsettling for many was the attack April 18 in which a Taliban sympathizer wearing a military uniform entered the heavily defended Defense Ministry building and opened fire. Two soldiers were killed and seven others wounded and the attacker was shot dead. But while the toll was low, and the defense minister, who was rumored to have been the target, was unhurt — it's still unknown publicly whether he was in the building — the attack impressed many.

"A suicide attacker getting into the Defense Ministry shows the government's weakness," said Abdul Samad, a 25-year-old mechanic, when he was asked about his sense of Afghanistan's security situation. Such an attack "makes people lose trust in the security forces."

A similar attack May 21 by a suicide bomber on a dining tent at Kabul's main military hospital also raised alarms. Six people were killed, and the bomber is thought likely to have had inside help gaining entry to the facility.

Mystery still surrounds the bombing May 28 of a meeting of high-level officials in Takhar province that claimed the life of one of Afghanistan's most famous commanders, Gen. Daud Daud, who as the top military leader of the Northern Alliance oversaw the last battle that toppled the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

At the time of his death, Daud, who was in charge of police operations in northern Afghanistan, had just completed a meeting with the governor of Takhar province, the province's police chief and the ISAF commander for northern Afghanistan. The police chief also was killed, and the governor and the ISAF commander, a German general, were wounded. Four other people were killed.

Investigators still haven't revealed details of the bombing, and though it was originally reported as a suicide attack, there are reports that the bomb was planted outside the secure room where the top officials were gathered.

Such incidents raise serious questions about how well-connected the Taliban may be within government circles, some analysts say.

"The insurgents have influence in high-level circles inside the security forces," said Gen. Helaludin Helal, a military expert who once served as Afghanistan's deputy interior minister. "That gives them the opportunity to target those who lead the security agencies."

Helal said Afghanistan's security forces clearly needed better intelligence about the insurgents' plans and capabilities.

"There is a lack of awareness of the enemy's ability and activities," he said.

Zemarai Bashari, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's police force, defended Afghanistan's security forces, saying that most of the Taliban's planned attacks have been foiled. He offered no details, however.

"Every year, when the weather gets warmer, there are militant operations," he said. "This is nothing new."

He expressed confidence that Afghanistan's security forces will be able to carry the burden when they take control from the ISAF in three provinces and four urban districts next month.

But the idea of U.S. and NATO troops leaving soon evinces a decidedly mixed reaction in the Afghan capital.

"There is a need for foreign troops in the current situation, till our security institutions can stand on their own feet " said Shukria Paikan, a parliamentarian who represents the northern province of Kunduz. "Of course, the U.S. forces will leave one day, but not before terrorism has been uprooted."

Ahmad Behzad, a member of the opposition in parliament, said violence had increased across the country, requiring foreign troops to stay.

"If they withdraw now, they will pave the way for the return of the Taliban and new bin Ladens in Afghanistan," he said, referring to the late al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who sheltered here in the years before the 9/11 attacks.

But some people think that the presence of U.S.-led NATO troops has complicated Afghanistan's problems.

"We did not have suicide attacks in the past, but now we have them in Afghanistan," said Abdul Wasi, 23, as he sat with three friends in a park.

Wasi said he didn't think that the Taliban would take over even if U.S. troops left, saying he thought that people would oppose them as they did in the 1990s. He neglected to mention, however, that the Taliban won that vicious civil war.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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