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Taliban surges thwarted by Afghan security forces

  • Afghan policemen sit atop a vehicle upon arrival after Taliban fighters attacked near Kabul airport, Afghanistan, Monday, June, 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban fighters launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan’s main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO’s airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)

    Afghan policemen sit atop a vehicle upon arrival after Taliban fighters attacked near Kabul airport, Afghanistan, Monday, June, 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban fighters launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan’s main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO’s airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)

  • Afghan security and intelligence official inspects wreckage at the site of a suicide attack near Kabul military airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, June 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan's main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO's airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. Two Afghan civilians were wounded and all the attackers were killed after an hours-long battle.

    Afghan security and intelligence official inspects wreckage at the site of a suicide attack near Kabul military airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, June 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan's main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO's airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. Two Afghan civilians were wounded and all the attackers were killed after an hours-long battle.

  • Afghan policemen sit atop a vehicle upon arrival after Taliban fighters attacked near Kabul airport, Afghanistan, Monday, June, 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban fighters launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan’s main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO’s airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)
  • Afghan security and intelligence official inspects wreckage at the site of a suicide attack near Kabul military airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, June 10, 2013. Seven heavily armed Taliban insurgents launched a pre-dawn attack near Afghanistan's main airport Monday, apparently targeting NATO's airport headquarters with rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and at least one large bomb. Two Afghan civilians were wounded and all the attackers were killed after an hours-long battle.

In the latest in a series of dramatic Taliban attacks across Afghanistan, a team of seven heavily armed fighters staged a bold raid on NATO’s operational headquarters at the Kabul airport yesterday before being fought off and killed by Afghan security forces.

The incident served as an example of what coalition and Afghan military officials say is the Taliban’s renewed determination to carry out nationwide attacks well after their annual spring offensive, in a bid to disrupt plans for next year’s national elections and expose Afghan security forces as incapable of defending the country ahead of the withdrawal of most NATO troops by the end of 2014.

But the raid’s failure also highlighted the Taliban’s inability to represent a major threat to the Afghan state, according to military officials. They say that the insurgents control little populated territory in few regions and have not been able to expand that sway and that Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces are increasingly able to defeat them.

In a statement issued a week ago, a NATO coalition spokesman, Col. Thomas Collins, said the Taliban “simply do not have the manpower, capability or coherence in command and control to be considered a strategic threat.”

Assessing the potency of the shifting and elusive organization is difficult, however. Afghan and coalition military officials acknowledge that they do not know how large the Taliban’s fighting force is, but analysts say it is easily able to recruit foot soldiers and fund itself through extortion. And although Afghan security forces have been able to combat Taliban attacks in urban areas, they are far more vulnerable in rural regions, where they are losing air backup and other international support.

Several Afghan officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, agree that the insurgents probably cannot defeat the much larger government forces. But the officials said that the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s future is not the strength of the insurgency but the weakness and corruption of the government, which has caused some Afghans to turn to the Taliban for security and justice.

“We don’t fear the enemy. We don’t need better equipment and technology, because those are things they don’t have. What we need is a stronger and better government,” one Afghan military official said. “People are dissatisfied with all the corruption, and there are splits even among our officers. We can’t afford to split into factions. This is very worrisome.”

In recent weeks, unusually ambitious insurgent attacks have stunned residents and international workers in Afghanistan. One assault team occupied a building in downtown Kabul used by an international refugee agency, setting off a five-hour gun battle. Another breached a government compound in Panjshir province, considered one of the safest areas in the country.

In an especially surprising incident, a suicide and commando squad attacked a provincial office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a group that observes a strict neutrality in conflicts, visits detainees on both sides and has helped maintain communication between imprisoned Afghan insurgents and their families. No group asserted responsibility for that attack, but Afghan security sources said the tactics were similar to those often used by the Taliban.

“We were really shocked,” said Robin Waudo, a spokesman for the ICRC, which has worked in Afghanistan since 1979. “We will have to change the way we do things now.”

The attacks have been part of a sustained pattern this spring in which police posts, government centers, coalition convoys, marketplaces and other sites have been targeted. Taliban spokesmen are portraying the offensive as a go-for-broke military effort, declaring that they have lost interest in long-stalled peace talks with the Afghan government.

“We are getting stronger and spreading our attacks because our country has been occupied,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said in a recent statement. “We will target foreigners and Afghans in their bases, in highways or airports, cities or rural areas. We are fighting to free our country and will continue to do so until the enemy has been defeated militarily and politically.”

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