Interpreting the Spring Offensive Attacks in Kabul, Paktia, Logar and Nangarhar
Apr 16, 2012Posted by Ryan Evans
Bottom Line Up Front: Be wary of comparisons with the Tet Offensive. Rosy statements about ANSF performance gloss over the intelligence failures that these attacks represent. A very small enemy force was able to paralyze much of Kabul and keep its security forces busy for over 18 hours.
I've been thinking a lot about how to interpret yesterday's attacks across eastern Afghanistan, which announced the launch of the insurgency's spring offensive. In the carefully orchestrated assaults, nearly 40 insurgents stormed Kabul, assaulting the German, Russian, and British embassies, firing on Parliament, and seizing a nearby building. Insurgents also launched smaller attacks in and around the capitals of Paktia, Logar and Nangarhar Provinces. The Haqqani Network was likely responsible. The Quetta Shura Taliban claimed credit, but they often claim Haqqani attacks on Kabul as their own.
It is tempting for the analyst to let pre-existing opinions on the war define how he or she analyzes most events in Afghanistan. It is also tempting to rely too much on one incident to judge the entire course of the war. Many commentators have fallen into these traps recently with the Marine urination video, the reaction to the Quran desecration at Bagram Airfield, and the horrific murders in Panjwai District, Kandahar at the hands of an American soldiers. As someone who has been critical of the direction of the campaign and its raison d'ętre, I am going to try to be as objective and "big picture" as possible.
Still, there are some important deductions here.
Predictable comparisons with the Tet Offensive (1968) have been made, followed by blog posts and articles noting the important differences between the two in scale and casualties. The Tet Offensive, in which about 70,000 Vietnamese communists attacked more than 100 cities and towns across the south, changed the direction of the Vietnam War by changing the perceptions of the American and South Vietnamese people on the war's winnability. However, as many have noted, the Tet Offensive ended up being a major tactical defeat for the Viet Cong. Their gains were brutally reversed (at the cost of about 2,000 U.S. and 4,000 S. Vietnamese soldiers) and the enemy took major, crippling losses (possibly as many as 50,000). Between Tet and the successes of the Phoenix program, the Viet Cong organization was decimated in South Vietnam. But in the war of perceptions, it was a massive victory for the enemy.
These attacks in Kabul were much smaller – remember, about 40 guys in Kabul and not that many more elsewhere – and far fewer people died on all sides.
International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. State Department media statements have been unrelentingly positive, focusing on the competent response from the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). By most (not all) reports, the ANSF response was effective and efficient. They responded quickly, contained the attackers, and – even though it took about 18 hours - eventually eliminated them and secured their hostages. And all of this with only some ISAF air support, and presumably some intelligence and logistics support as well.
As an American friend in Kabul noted over Twitter, "Spent 18 hours a few hundred yrds from bldg holed up by insurgents next to Parliament and never felt like situation was out of ANSF control."
However, what ISAF and State gloss over, and what these attacks do have in common with the Tet Offensive is both were precipitated by major intelligence failures. Failure is all the more severe in the present case because (a) ISAF and the Afghan government knew there would be attacks marking the beginning of this year's spring offensive (b) they knew the likely tactics that would be used, and (c) our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are unparalleled in their technological sophistication and funding levels. This is an ISAF failure, a CIA failure, and, especially, a failure of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), their internal intelligence service.
Americans, for the most part, already do not believe the war is winnable, but, as with Tet, these attacks may expose the "credibility gap" between the rosy and optimistic statements about progress in the campaign (which I wrote about earlier) and the capabilities of the ANSF in particular, and the reality of their ability to track threats they should have seen coming.
Just to hit this point home: They knew an attack to mark the spring offensive would be tried. It was. It paralyzed much of Kabul for 18 hours. And all it took was about 40 guys. How would the ANSF deal with 100? 1,000? More? They may very well have to in just a couple years.
And, as an aside, both Tet and yesterday's attacks in Afghanistan were preceded by Washington public relations tours by the American generals General Westmoreland, then Commander of Military Assistance Command-Vietnam, and General Allen, Commander of ISAF. In both instances, the American people were assured that everything was going according to the plan.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
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