Winning the Battles, but Losing the War

NATO, U.S. and Afghan government officials responded to today’s brazen daylight assault by the Taliban – which killed 12, injured 71 and brought Kabul to a standstill for a day – with the familiar refrain that the incident demonstrated the desperation, brutality, and even incompetence of the group.

Speaking from New Delhi, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s envoy to the region, called the Taliban “desperate” and “ruthless” because the attackers could not hope to “survive” or “succeed” with the strike (Associated Press, 18 January 2010).

According to NATO spokesperson U.S. Col. Wayne Shanks, "The attacks played well on TV but did not make any significant impact." In a similar vein, Afghan intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh told reporters: “The attack was in no way a success for them” referring to the Taliban (Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2010).

These denials are intended to obscure the reality that today’s events dealt a serious blow to the NATO mission and the wider Afghan reconstruction process.

The Taliban demonstrated once again that they are capable of undertaking sophisticated operations in the administrative epicenter and most heavily fortified area of the country. The psychological impact was clear. As one Afghan told the BBC in response to the attack: "Nobody is secure…You never know when you leave your house whether you're going to come back alive to your family." 

Ambassador Holbrooke, Col. Shanks and Mr. Saleh are no doubt acutely aware that in counter-insurgencies tactical victories pale in importance to political and psychological ones. The 1968 Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese Army is widely viewed as the turning point of the Vietnam War, but it was in fact a tactical defeat for the North. What mattered more, however, was the psychological effect that the massive coordinated attack had on the United States and its Southern Vietnamese ally. It showed that the North Vietnemese Army and Vietcong could attack anywhere at anytime. That is what today’s Taliban attack, albeit on a much smaller scale, was intended to demonstrate.

Afghan forces may have killed all of the Taliban militants involved in the attack and prevented them from causing a greater number of human casualties, but they could not prevent the images of the assault from feeding the fears and disillusionment of the Afghan people.

This after all, was the object of the attack. The handful of Taliban militants were not hoping to unseat the government, protected by tens of thousands of NATO and Afghan security forces. Rather, their goal was to send a message. With the Karzai government already mired in crisis due to a running confrontation with Parliament over cabinet appointments, and still trying to escape the shadow of a tainted election, the attack succeeded in deepening public perceptions of the administration’s impotence and ineffectiveness.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Afghan and Western officials…termed Monday's assault a failure for the insurgents because, unlike in a similar raid on the Ministry of Justice in the same area a year ago, the militants couldn't seize any government buildings and didn't inflict large casualties” (Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2010).

Such statements contrast sharply with initial reports that Taliban militants who stormed the Ferushgah mall  “ordered vendors and customers to vacate the building, in an apparent attempt to minimize civilian casualties” (Wall Street Journal, 18 January 2010).  Some vendors even had time to lock their shops before leaving the building as the militants took defensive positions in preparation for the arrival of the Afghan security forces. This doesn’t seem like an attempt to achieve massive civilian casualties.

Downplaying the significance of the attacks is perhaps understandable as a propaganda tool. However, this should not conceal the reality that the Taliban are gaining ground, not in terms of actual territory, but in the critical political and propaganda war.  

Among Afghan and Western officials, perhaps Afghan Defence Minister Rahim Wardak came closest to recognizing the significance of the day’s events: "There is no doubt that the terrorists will use today's attack for propaganda, and that they consider it a victory." Until the Afghan Government and the international community can turn around the propaganda war and soon, no amount of foreign troops can prevent defeat.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.