Afghanistan is sometimes referred to as the forgotten front in the War on Terrorism, but it was brought firmly back into focus this week after a failed bombing attack said to be aimed at Vice President Cheney during a surprise state visit. It is easy to make too much of the attack, as has been evident from some of the coverage. I was interested in particular in claims (first originating in Pakistan, no friend to the Afghan government) that this incident showed that the Taliban had compromised the Afghan intelligence network; that there was no other way they could have known about the “top secret” visit.
Maybe there was no easy way for the enemy to know about the visit in advance — but once the vice president arrived in-country Monday afternoon it became global news. The earliest wire report I could find was from AFP, dateline BAGRAM AIR BASE, at 12:18 P.M. GMT (4:48 P.M. Kabul time), and no doubt the news was out locally much sooner. Reports quickly followed that Cheney’s planned meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai was delayed for a day because of the snowy weather. Other reports helpfully noted that the visiting party would be taking helicopters south into Kabul — thankfully no one was hanging around with a Stinger.
The vice president spent the night at the airbase, and the attack took place at around 10:30 the next morning. This was plenty of time for reported bomber Mullah Abdul Rahim to get his plan together, which apparently involved trying to infiltrate Bagram disguised as a local laborer or in a delivery truck. Not exactly 9/11 caliber. When this approach quickly failed Rahim took out some targets of opportunity near the gate, though far fewer people were killed than initial reports indicated. Bottom line is that this was not a triumph of the crafty adversary and his superior intelligence network, but the impromptu exploitation of an opportunity presented by the delayed visit, based on “intelligence” freely available to anybody in the world. And, one might add, it was a total failure.
Of course some commentators adopted the line that the attack was successful because it allowed the Taliban to “send a message.” Well, no, it was an attempt to kill the vice president, which failed to achieve its objective. If there was a message it was the same one we always knew they were sending, that they hate our people and want them dead. It’s the same message we have for them. Others interpreted it as a sign of Taliban strength, but it is hard to see how such an amateurish attempt signifies anything of the kind. Yet ever since the Tet Offensive there has been a propensity to give our enemies an “A for effort” regardless of whether they achieve their objectives. It is a self-imposed asymmetric disadvantage that is puzzling and difficult to overcome.
The attack was well timed to fit into the media story line that emerges annually at this time of year, that of the vaunted Taliban “Spring offensive.” Every year since 2002 there has been reportage of the impending offensive. Every year there has been speculation that this time the Taliban are going to come roaring back. Every year there is an outburst of violence of some kind. And every year, the spring offensive fizzles, with a great deal of help from Coalition forces. In fact it would be useful if the Taliban did finally mass their forces and go after our troops in a head to head battle, giving up their advantages of stealth and mobility and allowing our overwhelming advantage of firepower to come into play. But this is precisely why they will not fight in the open, why they will not seize and hold territory, why they cannot march on Kabul. So long as we are engaged in the fight, such tactics would be suicide. And I don’t mean the “martyrdom” kind, just the foolish kind.
The pessimism regarding Afghanistan is really quite remarkable. This is a country larger than Iraq, and more populous, yet far more stable and with a much smaller footprint of Coalition forces. Conditions are not perfect, but are hardly dire either. The fact that most of the country is not controlled by the government in Kabul is not in itself reason for alarm. Afghanistan has never been a centralized, unified endeavor. It has always been a cluster of independent tribes and clans, brought together by interest or convenience, or when an outsider threatened. Tribal leaders hold sway in their localities, and the trick is to achieve a balance of interests between them.
So how is it going? A World Public Opinion survey of Afghanistan released last December showed that 62 percent of Afghans think their country is headed in the right direction — down from 83 percent a year earlier, but compare to the latest AP/Ipsos poll that shows only 28 percent of Americans thinking our country is on the right track. 84 percent of Afghans describe their security situation as good or excellent. President Karzai’s approval rating is in the 55-68 percent range, depending on the poll. Yes, down from 68-83 percent a year ago, but still in the upper-Reagan zone. Meanwhile the Taliban’s unfavorability numbers have increased from the high 80s to the low 90s.